US Navy sailor jailed for working with Chinese spy

Wenheng Zhao, 26, received nearly $15,000 for sharing sensitive military plans with a Chinese intelligence officer.
By Alex Willemyns for RFA
2024.01.09
Washington
US Navy sailor jailed for working with Chinese spy Petty Officer Wenheng Zhao, assigned to Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 3 at Naval Base Ventura County in Port Hueneme, Calif., takes part in an exercise at Fort Hunter Liggett, Calif., Nov. 13, 2019.
Michael Lopez/U.S. Navy

A U.S. Navy sailor was sentenced to more than two years in prison on Monday after pleading guilty to accepting almost US$15,000 in bribes from a Chinese spy in exchange for sensitive military information.

Wenheng Zhao, 26, accepted at least $14,866 across 14 separate payments from the spy from August 2021 to May 2023, according to a Department of Justice statement. In return, he provided “sensitive, non-public information regarding U.S. Navy operational security, military trainings and exercises, and critical infrastructure.”

The information, which the Californian transmitted using “sophisticated encrypted communication methods,” included “plans for a large-scale maritime training exercise in the Pacific theatre, operational orders and electrical diagrams and blueprints.”

Zhao was sentenced to two years and three months in prison after pleading guilty in October to conspiring with a foreign intelligence officer and receiving a bribe. He was arrested on Aug. 3, and had faced the prospect of up to 20 years in prison for the two charges.

But U.S. officials said he was not getting off lightly.

“Mr. Zhao betrayed his solemn oath to defend his country and endangered those who serve in the U.S. military,” said Matthew Olsen, the assistant U.S. attorney general for national security. “Today, he is being held to account for those crimes.”

Zhao’s sentencing follows the arrest of 29-year-old former American soldier Joseph Schmidt in San Francisco late last year for similarly trying to provide Chinese spies with sensitive military information. 

Larissa Knapp, the executive assistant director of the FBI’s National Security Branch, said that the recent arrests and sentencing of U.S. service members for espionage sent a message to China.

“Make no mistake, the PRC is engaged in an aggressive effort to undermine the national security of the U.S. and its partners,” Knapp said, using an acronym for the People’s Republic of China.

“Today’s sentencing demonstrates, yet again, the inability of China’s Intelligence Services to prevent the FBI and our vital partners from apprehending and prosecuting the spies China recruits,” she said.

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