Guard at U.S. Consulate in China tried to sell classified information
A model of the new U.S. Consulate compound in Guangzhou, China
August 31st, 2012
11:12 AM ET

Guard at U.S. Consulate in China tried to sell classified information

By Carol Cratty

A civilian guard at a new U.S. consulate in China pleaded guilty on Thursday to attempting to sell Chinese security officials photographs and access to the compound so they could plant listening devices.

According to a court proffer, Bryan Underwood had lost a significant amount of money in the stock market and hoped to make between $3 million and $5 million by supplying classified photos and information to China's Ministry of State Security.

Underwood, 32, appeared in federal court in Washington and pleaded guilty to one count of attempting to communicate national defense information to a foreign government. Under the terms of a plea agreement, the government agreed to drop charges that Underwood made false statements and that he failed to appear at a court hearing last year.

In the court proffer signed by Underwood, he admitted writing a letter last year addressed to the Chinese Ministry of State Security. "I know I have information and skills that would be beneficial to your offices (sic) goals," Underwood wrote. "And I know your office can assist me in my financial endeavors."

Underwood tried to deliver the letter to China's Ministry of State Security (MSS) but a guard turned him away and would not accept the letter. According to court documents, Underwood then "left the letter in the open in his apartment hoping that the MSS would find it. He believed the MSS routinely conducted searches of apartments occupied by Americans."

Prosecutors said that Underwood's job was to protect the U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou - not to make it vulnerable to Chinese counterintelligence. According to a news release quoting prosecutors, "The U.S. government has found no evidence that Underwood succeeded in passing classified information concerning the U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou to anyone at the Chinese MSS." Officials said there is no evidence suggesting the Chinese ever tried to recruit him for espionage.

In May of 2011 Underwood took 30 photographs in restricted areas. Prosecutors said 15 of those "depict areas and/or information that are classified at the SECRET level." He drew a diagram showing the locations of security cameras at the compound and created a schematic listing all security upgrades to the building site.

The proffer also said Underwood "mentally" came up with a plan in which Chinese agents could get into the compound undetected for approximately six hours to "install listening devices or other technical penetrations."

In addition to working as a guard at the consulate in February 2011 Underwood was asked by a U.S. law enforcement agent to help on a counter-surveillance project. Underwood was to tell the American agent about "any suspected attempts by the Chinese Government to recruit him for intelligence purposes." Underwood later came up with the idea to use his role helping law enforcement as a "cover" for contacting the Chinese.

According to court documents, Underwood's stock brokerage account dropped from almost $69,000 in February 2011 to a negative sum of more than $89,000 in April 2011. His account was frozen and he "became panicked about his financial situation," according to the court papers.

Underwood was interviewed by law enforcement several times and finally admitted he was trying to sell information to the Chinese for financial gain. He was arrested September 1, 2011. Underwood failed to show up for a court appearance in Washington later in the month. The FBI caught up with him a few days later at a Los Angeles hotel, arrested him again and he's been in jail ever since.

"Bryan Underwood was determined to make millions by selling secret photos of restricted areas inside a U.S. Consulate in China," said U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen. "His greed drove him to exploit his access to America's secrets to line his own pockets."

Underwood appeared in federal court wearing an orange jail jumpsuit. He answered questions asked by U.S. District Judge Ellen Huvelle in a calm, clear voice. When asked about any history of psychological problems, Underwood said he takes medication for anxiety and depression.

Underwood is scheduled to be sentenced on November 19. The plea agreement recommends a sentence of at least 15 and a half years up to almost 20 years. Huvelle is not bound by the recommendation and could sentence Underwood to up to life in prison.

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Filed under: China • FBI • Legal
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  34. Victoria

    Who knows what to believe? But 15 years is too much.

    September 5, 2012 at 5:55 am | Reply
  35. Barry Ford

    This is, as the German guy wrote is some organization's "fairy tale" (märchen) about a very stupid greedy would-be US traitor. If it really happened, apparently the Chinese did not take the "bait." I smell a CIA disinformation operation because like most fairly tales, this story is unreal. I think it is probably meant to warn someone, but I'm not sure who is the target of this fiction might be. Is it a warning to our State Department employees? Curious.
    As we see from the comments, this story is easy fodder for the knee-jerk non-thinkers among us who scornfully urge lethal punishment. You can't kill a fairy tale.

    September 3, 2012 at 3:31 pm | Reply
    • Guest

      So the CIA went to all this trouble to stage a fake potential espionage incident, and make sure news agencies in the US ran the story on the outside chance that State Department employees might read it and decide not to take the same course of action?

      Did your tinfoil hat fall off?

      September 4, 2012 at 7:45 am | Reply
  36. Alexander

    "...his stock brokerage account dropped from almost $69,000 in February 2011 to a negative sum of more than $89,000 in April 2011" - can anybody explain how it is possible that a brokerage account ends up being NEGATIVE?

    September 2, 2012 at 7:53 pm | Reply
    • Short

      He could have had a short position. Death to all traitors.

      September 3, 2012 at 1:32 am | Reply
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  38. 66th Strategic Command & Operations Unit.

    The charges against him should be
    – Treason –> Punishable by death (Even in the U.S)
    – Intent to selling classified material to a foreign government (Espionage –> Act of aggression)

    Either way serious crime was committed and he should pay for it.

    September 2, 2012 at 12:00 am | Reply
    • Short

      I support the death penalty if convicted. Execute him just like the Rosenbergs.

      September 3, 2012 at 1:32 am | Reply
      • :)

        The Rosenbergs were murdered by a self-loathing Jew for nothing more than a headline in a paper.

        September 3, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
  39. wavejump1100

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    September 1, 2012 at 6:38 pm | Reply
  40. NoN

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  41. James Johnson

    Was this one of the private armies we have created such as Blackwater, CIA, etc................ It seems a regular U.S. Soldier does not act on this level of stock trading, etc.......... They and their families find it difficult to even feed and clothe their families.....The wonderful New World U.S., where the earned benefits of the elderly are diminishing so these private armies can be created.

    September 1, 2012 at 8:46 am | Reply
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    August 31, 2012 at 12:25 pm | Reply
    • cajr

      you should have stayed in school.

      September 5, 2012 at 1:18 pm | Reply

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