Wenheng Zhao, who is also known as Thomas Zhao, of California, pleaded guilty to conspiracy and receiving a bribe in violation of his official duties. A federal judge in Los Angeles sentenced him to 27 months in prison on Monday and he was also fined $5,500.
The 26-year-old sailor was based at Naval Base Ventura County in Port Hueneme, which is west of Los Angeles. He held a U.S. security government clearance and underwent routine training on efforts by “hostile nation states” to acquire sensitive information, according to the U.S. Justice Department.
Prosecutors said Zhao collected nearly $15,000 in 14 separate bribe payments from a Chinese intelligence officer in exchange for information, photos and videos involving Navy exercises, operations and facilities between August 2021 through at least May 2023.
The information included plans for a large-scale U.S. military exercise in the Pacific, with details on the location and timing of naval force movements, and electrical diagrams and blueprints for a task-oriented radar system located in Okinawa, Japan.
The Chinese officer offered to pay Zhao bonuses for controlled and classified information, according to prosecutors.
Zhao used encrypted communications to transmit the information to the intelligence officer and destroyed the evidence to hide their relationship, prosecutors said.
"Mr. Zhao abdicated his oath to the United States and put American troops in harm's way when he accessed and handed over sensitive information to China for a payout," said Donald Alway, the assistant director in charge of the FBI's Los Angeles Field Office in a statement.
Zhao was one of two U.S. Navy sailors based in California who were charged last summer with providing sensitive military information to China. Both were charged with similar moves to provide sensitive intelligence to the Chinese. But they were separate cases, and it wasn't clear if the two were part of a larger scheme.
U.S. officials have accused China of an extensive campaign of espionage and cyberattacks for years, an allegation that China rejects.
Last year, the U.S. Navy shot down a 200-foot-tall balloon suspected of being used by China to spy on sensitive sites as it flew over the United States.
Trending stories at Scrippsnews.com