A US Navy service member pled guilty to federal felony offenses and charges of transmitting sensitive military documents to a representative of the Chinese government as part of a two-year-long bribery scheme.
The sailor, 26-year-old Petty Officer Wenheng Zhao, aka Thomas Zhao, of Monterey Park, California, was accused of secretly transmitting the documents to a Chinese intelligence officer via “sophisticated encrypted communications.” the US Justice Department (DOJ) announced Wednesday.
“The intelligence services of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) 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.
The PRC officer was said to have bribed the Petty Officer at least fourteen separate times between August 2021 and May 2023 with payments equaling roughly $15,000.
Zhao provided the intel officer with sensitive information about US Navy operational security, military trainings and exercises, as well as diagrams depicting Naval critical infrastructure.
Prosecutors from the Central District of California said that the co-conspirators “took great pains to conceal their corrupt scheme,” including the destruction of evidence and concealing their relationship.
Zhao, an enlisted service member working at the Naval Base Ventura County in Port Hueneme, used his security clearance to enter restricted military and naval installations to gather and record the sensitive info.
The service member “specifically admitted to transmitting plans for a large-scale maritime training exercise in the Pacific theatre, operational orders, and electrical diagrams and blueprints for a Ground/Air Task Oriented Radar system located in Okinawa, Japan,” the DOJ said.
Zhao was taken into federal custody on August 3 and charged with conspiracy and accepting a bribe from a foreign adversary.
The Navy officer faces a statutory maximum 20 years in prison – five years for one count of conspiracy and 15 years for the bribery charge.
Zhao will be sentenced this coming January 8th.
“Zhao’s guilty plea is an acknowledgment of the betrayal in selling sensitive military information to the Government of China," said FBI National Security Executive Assistant Director Larissa L. Knapp.
“The FBI reminds all government officials to remain vigilant in reporting potential recruitment efforts by foreign actors, and we remain committed to standing with our partners to protect the US from threats to our national security,” Knapp said.
The Los Angeles FBI Field Office’s Counterintelligence and Cyber Division and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) were tasked with investigating the case.
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