Petty Officer from Port Hueneme Naval Base Admits Spying for China

U.S. Navy research center near Port Hueneme, Naval Base Ventura County (USN file image)

Published Oct 11, 2023 6:37 PM by The Maritime Executive

One of the two U.S. Navy servicemembers recently arrested for alleged espionage has pleaded guilty to all charges. 

Petty Officer Wenheng "Thomas" Zhao, 26, worked at Naval Base Ventura County in Port Hueneme, and he held a U.S. security clearance. He has admitted that he passed military secrets to a Chinese intelligence officer, including plans for a maritime exercise in the Pacific; operational orders; and "electrical diagrams and blueprints for a Ground/Air Task Oriented Radar system located in Okinawa."

In exchange, he received 14 bribery payments totaling nearly $15,000 over the span of a year and a half. 

“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 Matthew G. Olsen in a statement. “When contacted by his coconspirator, rather than reporting it to the Navy, the Defendant chose greed over protecting the national security of the United States."

At his sentencing in January 2024, Zhao faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison – five years for the conspiracy count and 15 years for the bribery charge.

The other defendant, Jinchao Wei, was a former crewmember aboard the amphib USS Essex and faces similar (but unrelated) charges. Though he was not an American citizen, Wei had access to restricted information about the ship's propulsion and weapons systems. With the encouragement of his mother, Wei allegedly sent a Chinese intelligence officer photos and videos of the Essex, along nearly 60 restricted technical manuals - including the manuals for the ship's  weapons control systems, propulsion, steering system, elevators and casualty control systems. Wei denies the charges and has pleaded not guilty. 

"To those still working to assist our adversaries, find your nearest NCIS or FBI office and cooperate before we come for you," warned A.D. Cruz Jr., Acting Special Agent in Charge of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service's Office of Special Projects.