U.S. Navy Officer Who Helped China Is Sentenced to 2 Years

A United States naval officer who sent an intelligence officer working for the Chinese government photos of American military installations and details of naval training exercises in Asia was sentenced to more than two years in prison on Monday.

The 27-month sentence in federal court for the American officer, Wenheng Zhao, also known as Thomas, was lighter than those handed out to some other American citizens convicted of spying for China over the years. In 2019, a former C.I.A. officer, Kevin Patrick Mallory, received more than 20 years.

The case is a reminder of a broader espionage shadow war that has accompanied the intensifying rivalry between China and the United States.

American officials are worried in part because China has been building up its main intelligence agency and investing in wider recruitment, including of American citizens. Beijing, for its part, has offered rewards of tens of thousands of dollars to Chinese citizens who report spies, as part of a call for mass vigilance against foreign enemies.

In the case of Mr. Zhao, an electrician who worked at Naval Base Ventura County in California, prosecutors said that he received nearly $15,000 from the intelligence officer working for the Chinese government between August 2021 and at least May 2023.

In exchange, Mr. Zhao, 26, used encrypted communication methods to send his handler sensitive information, including photos and video of restricted areas in military installations, and plans for American naval exercises in Asia, according to an indictment filed in July that did not disclose the handler’s name.

Mr. Zhao also sent his handler details of movements of U.S. Navy ships and blueprints of the electrical system that housed a radar system at a U.S. naval base on the Japanese island of Okinawa, the indictment said.

Mr. Zhao, who held the rank of petty officer second class, was charged last summer in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California with one of count of conspiracy to defraud the United States and one count of receiving a bribe. The charges carried a combined maximum prison sentence of 20 years upon conviction, plus probation and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines.

In a plea agreement filed in October, federal prosecutors said they would recommend a lighter sentence as long as Mr. Zhao agreed to plead guilty, which he did. In addition to receiving the 27-month prison sentence, he was fined $5,500.

Mr. Zhao’s attorney, Tarek Shawky, said in an email late Monday that the defense team was disappointed because it had expected a shorter prison sentence — 12 to 18 months — that he said would have been consistent with a recommendation from probation officers.

“Mr. Zhao is remorseful and accepts responsibility, and we still expect a sentence consistent with the applicable law, facts and guidelines,” Mr. Shawky said.

The Justice Department did not immediately respond to an inquiry overnight about the case, and the court could not immediately be reached for comment. A spokeswoman for the U.S. military’s Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii referred questions to the Pacific Fleet, which did not immediately respond to an inquiry.

The Justice Department has said that China’s intelligence services try to undermine U.S. national security by targeting members of the American military who have security clearances. The department said in a statement on Monday that Mr. Zhao’s sentence illustrates China’s inability to stop U.S. officials from apprehending and prosecuting spies that it recruits.

China typically says that such accusations are smears and that the United States is the world’s largest spying power.

When the Justice Department announced Mr. Zhao’s arrest in August, it announced a separate espionage case that it was pursuing against Jinchao Wei, a U.S. Navy sailor in his early 20s who had been assigned to an amphibious assault ship and worked out of the Pacific Fleet’s headquarters in San Diego. That case, in which Mr. Wei, known as Patrick, could receive a life sentence if he is convicted, is ongoing in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California.

The prosecutors in Mr. Wei’s case have said that he accepted thousands of dollars from an intelligence officer working for the Chinese government. They say that, among other things, he disclosed the locations of Navy ships and sent photographs and videos of the ship he was stationed on at the time, the U.S.S. Essex.

Claire Fu contributed research.

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