Updated Oct 11, 2023 - World

U.S. slams China's intelligence services after American sailor's "betrayal"

Assistant Attorney General for National Security Matthew Olsen (right) and U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland during at a press conference at the U.S. Department of Justice in October last year. Photo: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

A U.S. Navy sailor arrested on national security charges pleaded guilty Tuesday to conspiring with a Chinese intelligence officer and receiving a bribe, the Department of Justice announced.

Driving the news: Petty Officer Wenheng Zhao, 26, of Monterey Park, California, originally pleaded not guilty. But he admitted on Tuesday that he had "engaged in a corrupt scheme to collect and transmit sensitive U.S. military information to the intelligence officer in violation of his official duties," per a DOJ statement.

  • Zhao, who held a U.S. security clearance, admitted to receiving almost $15,000 in bribes from the officer from August 2021 to May this year, when he worked at Naval Base Ventura County in Port Hueneme, California.

The big picture: He was charged Aug. 3 alongside sailor Jinchao Wei, 22, who was arrested on espionage charges after arriving for work at Naval Base San Diego. Wei pleaded not guilty in a San Diego federal court.

  • Zhao, who's also known as Thomas Zhao, has been in custody since his arrest and faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison. His sentencing is scheduled for Jan. 8.
  • A status hearing for Wei has been scheduled for Feb. 12.

What they're saying: China's intelligence services "actively target clearance holders across the military, seeking to entice them with money to provide sensitive government information," said Matthew Olsen, assistant attorney general for national security. 

  • "When contacted by his co-conspirator, rather than reporting it to the Navy, the defendant chose greed over protecting the national security of the United States," Olsen added.
  • "He is now being held accountable for his crimes. To others tempted to put personal profit ahead of patriotic duty, know that we are committed to identifying you and bringing you to justice."

Meanwhile, Martin Estrada, U.S. attorney for the Central District of California, said Zhao had "betrayed his country and the men and women of the U.S. Navy by accepting bribes from a foreign adversary."

  • Larissa Knapp, assistant director of the FBI's National Security Branch, added that Zhao's guilty plea was "an acknowledgement of the betrayal in selling sensitive military information to the Government of China."
  • Chinese officials did not immediately comment on Zhao's guilty plea or the U.S. officials' remarks.

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Editor's note: This article has been updated with details of sailor Jinchao Wei's status hearing.

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