On October 10, U.S. Navy service member Petty Officer Wenheng Zhao pleaded guilty to felony offenses associated with his having transmitted sensitive U.S. military information to China in exchange for money. Zhao sold himself cheaply, as his total payments totaled $14,866 paid in 14 installments between August 2021 and May 2023.
“Protecting our country’s national security is of the utmost importance,” said Executive Assistant Director Larissa L. Knapp of the FBI’s National Security Branch. “Zhao’s guilty plea is an acknowledgement of the betrayal in selling sensitive military information to the Government of China. The FBI reminds all government officials to remain vigilant in reporting potential recruitment efforts by foreign actors, and we remain committed to standing with our partners to protect the U.S. from threats to our national security.”

Two U.S. citizens were indicted on a variety of felony charges by a grand jury for their role in the pilfering of sensitive U.S. Navy documents and information which put the OPSEC of U.S. forces at risk. These two individuals did this for money, though what they received would be considered peanuts by most readers. Their interlocutor was a Chinese intelligence officer who was masquerading under a commercial cover as a maritime economic researcher (there may be a thinner cover tale available to the Chinese Ministry of State Security, though this writer doubts it).

Petty Officer Wenheng Zhao

Meet Petty Officer Wenheng Zhao, aka Thomas Zhao of the U.S. Navy. Zhao opted to exchange sensitive information with the PRC intelligence officer via a variety of means, to include, video recording, photos of sensitive information, documents, information on U.S. radar at U.S. military base in Okinawa, and OPSEC information on U.S. military exercises in the Indo-Pacific Region. The indictment covers his activities from August 2021 through May 2023.

The Chinese intelligence apparatus is known to run commercial ops, and they also work to minimize the risk of inadvertent discovery, indeed the intel officer advised his recruit, Zhao to destroy messages after they were received, to conceal his relationship with China. For this, Zhao received over the course of two years $14,866.

“By sending this sensitive military information to an intelligence officer employed by a hostile foreign state, the defendant betrayed his sacred oath to protect our country and uphold the Constitution,” said U.S. Attorney Martin Estrada for the Central District of California.

Machinist Mate Jinchao Wei

Meet Machinist Mat Jinchao Wei, aka Patrick Wei. One the great ironies of Wei’s case is that Wei received his U.S. citizenship in May 2022 during his period of perfidy while working on behalf of the PRC intelligence apparatus, and China gave him a bonus. Wei, like Zhao, provided a Chinese intelligence officer with U.S. Navy information, much of which was related to the U.S.S. Essex, a Wasp class Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) amphibious assault ship. The Essex’s home port was San Diego.

In February 2022, the indictment tells us that Wei told another U.S. Navy sailor that he had been asked to spy on behalf of the PRC. Wei began his activities on behalf of the PRC in February 2022 and these continued until present (July 2023).

Wei had no problem sharing documents and over 30 restricted naval technical manuals with his PRC handler. For the 18 months of his activity, he was given $5000 by the PRC.

“We have entrusted members of our military with tremendous responsibility and great faith,” said U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman for the Southern District of California. “Our nation’s safety and security are in their hands. When a soldier or sailor chooses cash over country, and hands over national defense information in an ultimate act of betrayal, the United States will aggressively investigate and prosecute.”

China espionage ops

While neither of the indictments, nor the Department of Justice press release explicitly say that the Chinese intelligence officer who met with Wei and Zhao is the same individual, to this learned eye, it appears that two of the commercial recruitments (there may be more) handled by the unidentified intel officer have been neutralized.

Both Wei and Zhao were told to use commercially available communications applications that permitted the content to be encrypted. They were both regularly tasked by their handler to provide ever more sensitive pieces of information. The handler used the inducement of more money and bonuses as incentives.

This is not the first instance of Chinese commercial operations targeting the U.S. military. There is a Chinese intelligence officer, Yanjun Xu, sitting in a U.S. federal prison having been convicted of espionage, he was instrumental in targeting and handling several U.S. sources to include a Chinese national who had permanent resident status and who, on the intel officer’s direction attempted to leverage the MAVNI program to acquire U.S. citizenship through serving in the U.S. Army.

“These arrests are a reminder of the relentless, aggressive efforts of the People’s Republic of China to undermine our democracy and threaten those who defend it,” said Assistant Director Suzanne Turner of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division. “The PRC compromised enlisted personnel to secure sensitive military information that could seriously jeopardize U.S. national security. The FBI and our partners remain vigilant in our determination to combat espionage and encourage past and present government officials to report any suspicious interactions with suspected foreign intelligence officers.”

China isn’t slowing down, nor should your counterintelligence efforts to thwart their offensive operations.

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Christopher Burgess (@burgessct) is an author and speaker on the topic of security strategy. Christopher, served 30+ years within the Central Intelligence Agency. He lived and worked in South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Central Europe, and Latin America. Upon his retirement, the CIA awarded him the Career Distinguished Intelligence Medal, the highest level of career recognition. Christopher co-authored the book, “Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost, Preventing Intellectual Property Theft and Economic Espionage in the 21st Century” (Syngress, March 2008). He is the founder of securelytravel.com