U.S. Navy Service Member Allegedly Transmitted Sensitive U.S. Military Information to a Chinese Intelligence Officer

LOS ANGELES – Federal prosecutors today unsealed a grand jury indictment that accuses a United States Navy service member with receiving bribes in exchange for transmitting sensitive U.S. military information to an intelligence officer from the People’s Republic of China.

Petty Officer Wenheng Zhao, 26, also known as Thomas Zhao, of Monterey Park, was arrested Wednesday by special agents with the FBI and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS). Zhao, who is charged in the indictment with conspiracy and receipt of a bribe by a public official, is scheduled to be arraigned this afternoon in United States District Court in downtown Los Angeles.

The indictment alleges that Zhao, who worked at Naval Base Ventura County in Port Hueneme and held a U.S. security clearance, received bribes from a Chinese intelligence officer in exchange for violating his official duties as a U.S. sailor by, among other actions, disclosing non-public, sensitive U.S. military information.

Beginning in August 2021 and continuing through at least May 2023, at the Chinese intelligence officer’s direction, Zhao violated his official duties to protect sensitive military information by surreptitiously recording, and then transmitting to the intelligence officer, U.S. military information, photographs and videos, according to the indictment.

In exchange for bribes, Zhao allegedly sent the Chinese intelligence officer non-public and controlled operational plans for a large-scale U.S. military exercise in the Indo-Pacific Region, which detailed the specific location and timing of Naval force movements, amphibious landings, maritime operations and logistics support.

The indictment further alleges that Zhao photographed electrical diagrams and blueprints for a radar system stationed on a U.S. military base in Okinawa, Japan.

Zhao also obtained and transmitted details about the Navy’s operational security at the Naval Base in Ventura County and on San Clemente Island, including photographs and videos, according to the indictment.

The intelligence officer allegedly directed Zhao to conceal their relationship and to destroy evidence of the unlawful and corrupt scheme.

In exchange for the sensitive information Zhao provided – information Zhao accessed as a result of his position within the U.S. Navy – the Chinese intelligence officer paid Zhao approximately $14,866, the indictment alleges.

“By sending this sensitive military information to an intelligence officer employed by a hostile foreign state, the defendant betrayed his sacred oath to protect our country and uphold the Constitution,” said United States Attorney Martin Estrada. “Unlike the vast majority of U.S. Navy personnel who serve the nation with honor, distinction and courage, Mr. Zhao chose to corruptly sell out his colleagues and his country.”

“By accepting cash bribes from a hostile nation whose leaders are intent on stealing American secrets, Zhao betrayed his military oath and sold out his country while he brazenly put Americans and our servicemen at risk, said Donald Alway, the Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office. “Zhao’s alleged actions are a reminder that American citizens with access to state secrets or intellectual property are being targeted by the Chinese government. The FBI will continue to seek out such behavior with our partners and hold offenders accountable.”

“NCIS is committed to protecting the Department of the Navy’s sensitive information to ensure the safety of the warfighter and our nation,” said Special Agent in Charge Brice Miller of the NCIS Office of Special Projects. “NCIS will continue to leverage its unique law enforcement and counterintelligence authorities to vigorously pursue those who attempt to compromise our national security information. We are grateful to the FBI and Department of Justice for their substantial assistance to this lengthy investigation and greatly appreciate our continued partnership.”

An indictment is merely an allegation. All defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.

If he were to be convicted of the two counts in the indictment, Zhao would face a statutory maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison. 

The FBI’s Counterintelligence and Cyber Division of the Los Angeles Field Office and NCIS conducted the investigation. IRS Criminal Investigation provided substantial assistance. 

Assistant United States Attorneys Annamartine Salick, Sarah Gerdes, Christine Ro and Kathrynne Seiden of the Terrorism and Export Crimes Section are prosecuting this case. The Counterintelligence and Export Control Section at the Department of Justice is providing substantial assistance.

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