US Navy sailor pleads guilty to selling national security secrets to China

A US Navy serviceman admitted Tuesday to accepting bribes from a Chinese intelligence officer in exchange for transmitting sensitive US military information to the communist power. 

Petty Officer Wenheng Zhao, 26, of Monterey Park, Calif.,  pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring with the intelligence officer and one count of receiving a bribe, both felonies, according to the US Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California. 

“Officer Zhao betrayed his country and the men and women of the US Navy by accepting bribes from a foreign adversary,” US Attorney Martin Estrada said Tuesday. “While he and the PRC officer he served took great pains to conceal their corrupt scheme, investigators were vigilant in uncovering this shameful plot.” 

“Today’s resolution, requiring Zhao to plead guilty to all charges against him, shows that we will act swiftly and decisively to protect our nation from those who seek to undermine our security.”

Zhao faces up to 20 years in federal prison over the charges.
PO 2nd Class Michael Lopez/U.S. Navy Photo

Zhao admitted to receiving nearly $15,000 in bribes from the Chinese intelligence officer between August 2021 and May 2023, when he worked at Naval Base Ventura County in Port Hueneme, Calif.

Zhao, who held a security clearance, secretly collected and transmitted information to China related to Navy operational security, military trainings and critical infrastructure, according to the Justice Department. 

He specifically confessed to passing on plans for a large-scale maritime training exercise in the Pacific theatre, operational orders, and electrical diagrams and blueprints for a Japanese radar system. 

Navy ship
Zhao admitted to receiving nearly $15,000 in bribes from a Chinese intelligence officer in exchange for sharing US military secrets.
US Navy

“The intelligence services of the People’s Republic of China actively target clearance holders across the military, seeking to entice them with money to provide sensitive government information,” said Assistant Attorney General for National Security Matthew G. Olsen. “When contacted by his co-conspirator, rather than reporting it to the Navy, the Defendant chose greed over protecting the national security of the United States.”

“He is now being held accountable for his crimes. To others tempted to put personal profit ahead of patriotic duty, know that we are committed to identifying you and bringing you to justice,” Olsen added. 

Zhao is slated to be sentenced on Jan. 8, 2024. He faces up to 20 years in federal prison.

Federal prosecutors announced Zhao’s arrest in August, at the same time a second Navy sailor, 22-year-old Jinchao Wei, was taken into custody for a separate alleged plot to pass sensitive security information to Chinese officials. 

Wei, who served aboard the San Diego-based USS Essex, was busted on espionage charges after he allegedly provided China with detailed information of the ship and its crew.

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