U.S. Navy Service Member Sentenced for Espionage and Bribery


In a shocking case that underscores the persistent threats to national security, a 26-year-old U.S. Navy service member, Petty Officer Wenheng Zhao, has been sentenced to 27 months in prison and fined $5,500 for transmitting sensitive U.S. military information to an intelligence officer from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in exchange for bribery payments. This grave breach of trust and allegiance has resulted in Zhao’s removal from the military and a federal prison sentence.

The Guilty Plea

Court documents reveal that Zhao, also known as Thomas Zhao, pleaded guilty in October 2023 to one count of conspiring with the intelligence officer and one count of receiving a bribe. The charges stem from his involvement in a corrupt scheme that compromised national security by divulging classified U.S. military information to a foreign intelligence operative.

The Legal Consequences

The sentencing, which includes 27 months of imprisonment and a $5,500 fine, reflects the severity of Zhao’s actions. Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen of the Justice Department’s National Security Division emphasized the gravity of the betrayal, stating that Zhao endangered fellow U.S. military personnel and violated his solemn oath to defend his country. U.S. Attorney Martin Estrada for the Central District of California echoed this sentiment, highlighting the swift and decisive action taken to punish those who undermine national security.

The Ongoing Threat

Executive Assistant Director Larissa L. Knapp of the FBI’s National Security Branch emphasized the aggressive efforts of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to undermine U.S. national security. Zhao’s betrayal, as outlined in the case, demonstrates the extent to which foreign intelligence operatives are willing to exploit individuals for their perceived advantage. The FBI’s commitment to apprehending and prosecuting those who compromise national security remains resolute.

Details of the Corrupt Scheme

Zhao, stationed at Naval Base Ventura County, Port Hueneme, and holding a U.S. security clearance, engaged in a corrupt scheme from August 2021 to at least May 2023. During this period, he received at least $14,866 in 14 separate bribe payments from the PRC intelligence officer. In exchange, Zhao transmitted sensitive U.S. military information, including plans for a large-scale maritime training exercise in the Pacific theatre, operational orders, and critical infrastructure details.

Sophisticated Espionage Methods

Zhao utilized sophisticated encrypted communication methods to transmit the classified information, indicating a calculated and deliberate effort to conceal his activities. The case reveals the extent to which individuals may go to compromise national security, employing advanced techniques to avoid detection.


The sentencing of Petty Officer Wenheng Zhao serves as a stark reminder of the constant vigilance required to safeguard national security. The collaborative efforts of the FBI, the Department of Justice, and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) played a crucial role in bringing Zhao to justice. As the nation remains steadfast in protecting its secrets, this case sheds light on the ongoing challenges posed by foreign entities seeking to exploit vulnerabilities within the U.S. military.

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