LOS ANGELES– A U.S. Navy sailor accused of providing sensitive military information to China pleaded guilty Tuesday in Los Angeles to conspiring with a foreign intelligence officer and receiving a bribe, federal prosecutors said .
Master Wenheng Zhao, 26, initially pleaded not guilty when he was charged on August 4. The Justice Department alleges that Zhao, based at the Ventura County Naval Base north of Los Angeles, conspired to collect nearly $15,000 in bribes from a Chinese intelligence officer. in exchange for information, photos and videos on Navy exercises, operations and installations.
The information included plans for a large-scale U.S. military exercise in the Indo-Pacific region that would detail the location and timing of naval force movements, prosecutors said. The Chinese officer told Zhao that the information was necessary for maritime economic research to inform investment decisions, according to the indictment.
Zhao, who also went by the name Thomas Zhao and held a U.S. security clearance, “admitted to involvement in a bribery scheme to collect and transmit sensitive U.S. military information to the intelligence officer in violation of his duties official,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office said. in a press release Tuesday.
Zhao, of Monterey Park, Calif., faces a statutory maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison. He has been in detention since his arrest on August 3.
Zhao was indicted the same day as another California-based Navy sailor accused of similar crimes. But they are separate cases, and federal officials have not said whether the two men were courted or paid by the same Chinese intelligence officer as part of a larger scheme.
Jinchao Wei, a 22-year-old assigned to the San Diego-based USS Essex, is responsible for providing detailed information on weapon systems and aircraft aboard the Essex and other amphibious assault ships which act as small aircraft carriers. He pleaded not guilty in San Diego federal court.
Last week, a former U.S. Army intelligence officer was indicted in Seattle for trying to provide classified military information to Chinese security services during the COVID-19 outbreak. Sgt. Joseph Daniel Schmidt, 29, was arrested Oct. 6 at San Francisco International Airport as he arrived from Hong Kong, where he had lived since March 2020, the Justice Department said.
A federal grand jury returned an indictment charging him with withholding and attempting to transmit national defense information. Records in U.S. District Court in Seattle did not yet list an attorney representing Schmidt on the charges, and neither the U.S. attorney’s office nor the federal public defender’s office knew whether he had an attorney.
An FBI statement filed in the case quoted Schmidt telling his sister in an email that he left the United States because he disagreed with unspecified aspects of U.S. politics.