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U.S. Navy Sailor Gets 27 Months in Prison for Selling Secrets to China

Construction Electrician 3rd Class Wenheng Zhao during an exercise in California, 2019 (USN file image)
Construction Electrician 3rd Class Wenheng Zhao during an exercise in California, 2019 (USN file image)

Published Jan 8, 2024 8:58 PM by The Maritime Executive

A Chinese-born U.S. Navy sailor has been sentenced to spend more than two years in jail for passing sensitive military secrets to the government of China.  

Petty Officer Wenheng "Thomas" Zhao, 26, worked at Naval Base Ventura County in Port Hueneme, California. In October 2023, he pleaded guilty to charges of bribery and conspiracy, and he admitted that he had passed military secrets to a Chinese intelligence officer. The information included plans for a maritime exercise in the Pacific; Navy operational orders; and "electrical diagrams and blueprints for a Ground/Air Task Oriented Radar system located in Okinawa."

For all this - and the risk of a long prison sentence - Zhao accepted just $15,000 in 14 separate payments, spaced out in installments over the course of 2021-23. 

Zhao could have been sentenced to up to five years for the conspiracy count and 15 years for the bribery charge, and prosecutors sought 37 months, claiming that the defendant had tried to obstruct their investigation. Zhao’s lawyer sought 12 months.  US District Judge R. Gary Klausner took the middle ground and settled on 27 months. 

“Officer Zhao betrayed his country and the men and women of the US Navy by accepting bribes from a foreign adversary,” U.S. Attorney Martin Estrada said last year in announcing the guilty plea. 

Another Chinese-born U.S. Navy sailor from California, Jinchao Wei, faces separate charges in connection with another alleged plot to pass information to a Chinese intelligence officer. Wei has pleaded not guilty. According to prosecutors, Wei had encouragement from his mother, who told her son that the betrayal would help him in a future career in the Chinese Communist Party.