U.S. Navy Sailor Admits to Selling Secrets to China
In a concerning case that underscores the ongoing challenges the United States faces from foreign intelligence threats, a U.S. Navy sailor, Petty Officer Wenheng Zhao, recently pleaded guilty to sending sensitive U.S. military information to a Chinese intelligence officer in exchange for less than $15,000 in bribes. This startling revelation has raised significant national security concerns, especially given the sensitive nature of the information involved.
Zhao, stationed at Naval Base Ventura County in Port Hueneme, California, held a security clearance. Court documents and prosecutors revealed that from August 2021 to at least May 2023, Zhao clandestinely collected sensitive information related to Navy operations security. This information was then transmitted to an unnamed Chinese intelligence officer identified as “Conspirator A.”
In exchange for the classified information, Zhao received a sum of $14,866 from the Chinese officer. On Tuesday, Zhao pleaded guilty to federal offenses of conspiracy and bribery before U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner. These charges are a stark reminder of the ongoing efforts by foreign intelligence agencies, particularly the People’s Republic of China, to target individuals with security clearances within the U.S. military.
Assistant Attorney General for National Security Matthew Olsen emphasized the dangers posed by foreign intelligence agencies and the importance of safeguarding national security. He noted that China actively seeks to entice individuals holding security clearances across the U.S. military with financial incentives to provide sensitive government information. In Zhao’s case, he had an opportunity to report the contact by his co-conspirator but, instead, chose personal gain over the protection of U.S. national security.
The extent of Zhao’s betrayal is deeply concerning, as he admitted to providing the Chinese officer with photographs and videos of restricted areas of the Naval Base Ventura County and San Clemente Island, which is administered by Naval Base Coronado. Moreover, he shared critical details regarding a large military exercise planned in the Indo-Pacific region, revealing specifics about the timing and locations of U.S. naval force movements. Additionally, he transmitted photographs of diagrams outlining an electrical system at a U.S. military base in Okinawa, Japan. U.S. Attorney Martin Estrada for the Central District of California underscored the gravity of Zhao’s actions, describing them as a betrayal of both his country and the dedicated men and women of the U.S. Navy.
This case is not an isolated incident. In August, Zhao was arrested and charged along with another U.S. Navy sailor, Jinchao Wie, who was also accused of conspiring to send national defense information to a Chinese intelligence officer. While Wie has pleaded not guilty to the charges, Zhao faces a potential maximum prison sentence of 20 years when he is sentenced on January 8, 2024.
The Zhao case serves as a critical reminder of the need for robust counterintelligence efforts to protect sensitive information and safeguard the national security of the United States. The dangers of foreign espionage and intelligence efforts continue to pose significant threats, and cases like this underscore the necessity for ongoing vigilance in defending against these threats.