LOS ANGELES — A U.S. Navy sailor charged with providing sensitive military information to China pleaded guilty in Los Angeles on Tuesday to conspiring with a foreign intelligence officer and receiving a bribe, federal prosecutors said.
Petty Officer Wenheng Zhao, 26, originally pleaded not guilty when he was charged Aug. 4. The Justice Department alleges that Zhao, based at Naval Base Ventura County, north of Los Angeles, conspired to collect nearly $15,000 in bribes from a Chinese intelligence officer in exchange for information, photos and videos of involving Navy exercises, operations and facilities.
The information included plans for a large-scale U.S. military exercise in the Indo-Pacific region, which detailed the location and timing of naval force movements, prosecutors said. The Chinese officer told Zhao the information was needed 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 he engaged in a corrupt scheme to collect and transmit sensitive U.S. military information to the intelligence officer in violation of his official duties,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office said in a news release Tuesday.
Zhao, of Monterey Park, California, faces a statutory maximum penalty of 20 years in federal prison. He has been in custody since his arrest on Aug. 3.
Zhao was charged on the same day as another California-based Navy sailor who is accused of similar crimes. But they are separate cases, and federal officials haven’t said if the two 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 charged with providing detailed information on the weapons systems and aircraft aboard the Essex and other amphibious assault ships that act as small aircraft carriers. He pleaded not guilty in federal court in San Diego.
Last week, a former U.S. Army soldier was charged in Seattle with attempting to provide classified defense information to the Chinese security services during the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Sgt. Joseph Daniel Schmidt, 29, was arrested Oct. 6 at San Francisco International Airport as he arrived from Hong Kong, where he had been living since March 2020, the Justice Department said.
A federal grand jury returned an indictment charging him with retention and attempted delivery of national defense information. U.S. District Court records 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 had information about whether he had a lawyer.
An FBI declaration filed in the case quoted Schmidt as telling his sister in an email that he left the U.S. because he disagreed with unspecified aspects of American policy.