On Monday, Petty Officer Wenheng Zhao, a 26-year-old Navy serviceman from Monterey Park, California, was given a surprisingly lenient 27-month prison sentence. The decision came at a sentencing hearing in federal court after Zhao’s admission of guilt in a case involving the transmission of sensitive U.S. military information to a Chinese intelligence officer.
Zhao, who held a security clearance, was found guilty of conspiring with a Chinese intelligence officer and accepting bribes. Shockingly, despite the gravity of these offenses, which included leaking plans for a significant Pacific training exercise and confidential information about a radar system in Okinawa, Japan, his punishment seems disproportionately mild.
Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen, representing the Justice Department’s National Security Division, said, “Mr. Zhao betrayed his solemn oath to defend his country and endangered those who serve in the U.S. military.” This betrayal of trust and national security could have landed Zhao up to 20 years in federal prison.
Wenheng Zhao, a #USNavy officer, received only 27 months for selling secrets to #China: https://t.co/YX26R01BHQ. We should be handing out at least life sentences for those selling out our country to the #CCP.
— Gordon G. Chang (@GordonGChang) January 9, 2024
U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California Martin Estrada emphasized Zhao’s disgrace and betrayal of his country for accepting bribes from a foreign adversary. Estrada claimed that even the light sentence should serve as a deterrent, given the Department of Justice’s demonstrated commitment to punish those who compromise national security.
Nevertheless, the light sentence raises serious questions about the deterrent effect it might have when easily influenced persons who should not have security clearances are tempted by the lure of easy money in exchange for national security information.
Zhao’s actions, which included the destruction of evidence and covert communications with the Chinese intelligence officer, were part of a larger pattern of espionage activities that the FBI and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service have been increasingly vigilant against. Larissa Knapp, the executive assistant director of the FBI’s national security branch, pointed to the case as evidence of China’s aggressive efforts to undermine U.S. security.
Zhao, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in China, was stationed at Naval Base Ventura County in Port Hueneme, California. Over nearly two years, Zhao received almost $15,000 for the information he sold to the Chinese.
Zhao’s prosecution coincides with another alarming incident involving Jinchao Wei, another U.S. sailor accused of passing security information to Chinese officials.
In an era where digital espionage and international intelligence conflicts are increasingly common, the U.S. must remain vigilant and unyielding in safeguarding its secrets and penalizing those who betray them. The case of Petty Officer Zhao is a strong reminder of the ongoing battle in the shadows of international espionage.