US Navy sailor admits selling secret military blueprints to China for $15K

Worth it for 20 years behind bars?

A US Navy service member pleaded guilty yesterday to receiving thousands of dollars in bribes from a Chinese spymaster in exchange for passing on American military secrets.

Petty Officer Wenheng Zhao, 26, aka Thomas Zhao, of Monterey Park, California, now faces up to 20 years in prison for two federal felony offenses: conspiring with a People's Republic of China (PRC) intelligence officer, and receiving a bribe. Sentencing is scheduled for January 8. 

According to the US Justice Department and court documents [PDF], Zhao worked at Naval Base Ventura County, located in Port Hueneme, California, and held a US security clearance that gave him access to material up to and including "secret" data. 

The naval base supported development and operational testing of missiles, electronic warfare systems, and other weapons, and Zhao's duties included protecting information related to the Navy's operational security.

In court on Tuesday, Zhao admitted to receiving at least $14,866 in at least 14 separate bribes from a PRC spymaster between August 2021 and May 2023. 

In exchange for these illicit payments, Zhao illegally collected and transmitted to a Chinese handler non-public information about US Navy operational security, military training and exercises, and critical infrastructure. 

Specifically, Zhao handed over plans for a large-scale maritime training exercise in the Pacific theater. He also confessed to trading operational orders, electrical diagrams, and blueprints for a radar system in Okinawa, Japan, in exchange for cash.

Additionally, Zhao fessed up to using encrypted communication methods to transmit the military info to the Chinese spy, and then destroyed the evidence to hide his relationship with the foreign intelligence officer.

Zhao was arrested along with another Navy service member on August 3, and has been in custody since then. The second sailor, Jinchao Wei, aka Patrick Wei, was charged with spying-related crimes at a separate naval base in San Diego, California.

According to US prosecutors at Wei's August hearing in southern California, Wei allegedly told a fellow service member that Beijing was recruiting him for what he called "quite obviously fucking espionage."

Apparently this was also obvious to Zhao, and in a statement announcing his guilty plea, executive assistant director Larissa Knapp of the FBI's National Security Branch called it "an acknowledgement of the betrayal in selling sensitive military information to the Government of China."

Late last week, a former US Army sergeant was arrested and charged with two federal felonies related to trading secrets to China after allegedly creating a Word document with the entirely non-suspicious title of "Important Information to Share with Chinese Government." ®

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