WASHINGTON — A former security guard at the construction site of a new U.S. consulate compound in Guangzhou, China, pleaded guilty Thursday to trying to sell secret photos and other secret information about restricted areas inside the facility to China’s Ministry of State Security.
At a hearing in federal court, Bryan Underwood admitted that the case against him as laid out by prosecutors in court papers was correct.
“Guilty,” he said when the judge asked for his plea.
According to prosecutors, Underwood had lost nearly $170,000 in the stock market and hoped to make $3 million to $5 million by selling information to the Chinese and by providing them with access to the consulate. Underwood created a schematic that listed all security upgrades to the U.S. consulate and drew a diagram of the surveillance camera locations at the facility, according to papers in the case.
Underwood wrote a letter to the ministry of state security expressing interest in initiating a business arrangement with Chinese officials and took photographs of his worksite to pass on. He was turned away by a guard who declined to accept the letter.
He later left the letter in the open in his apartment hoping that Chinese state security would find it. He believed that Chinese state security routinely searched apartments occupied by Americans.
A year ago, U.S. law enforcement agents in Hong Kong interviewed Underwood and he revealed his plans to sell information and access to China.
The charge Underwood pleaded guilty to carries a sentence of up to life in prison. Under federal sentencing guidelines, Underwood likely will be sentenced to serve between 15 and 20 years in prison.
Underwood devised a plan in which the Chinese state security could gain undetected access to a building at the U.S. consulate to install listening devices or other technical penetrations, according to his later statements to U.S. law enforcement officials.
In May 2011, Underwood took a camera surreptitiously into the U.S. consulate compound and took 30 photos of a restricted building and its contents, according to a government statement of facts to which Underwood agreed. Many of the photos show areas or information classified as secret. He also created a schematic listing all security upgrades and drew a diagram of the surveillance camera locations.
In addition to his duties as a guard, Underwood, at the behest of a U.S. law enforcement agent, agreed to participate in a counter-surveillance project in which he was to report to his superiors any attempt by the Chinese to recruit him for intelligence purposes.
When he later came under suspicion by U.S. investigators, he initially told his interrogators that he had been trying to contact Chinese state security as part of his work on behalf of that counter-surveillance project.
From November 2009 to August 2011, Underwood was a civilian American guard with top secret clearance; his job included preventing foreign governments from improperly obtaining sensitive or classified information from the U.S. consulate.
“Bryan Underwood was charged with protecting a new U.S. consulate compound against foreign espionage, but facing financial hardship, he attempted to betray his country for personal gain,” said Assistant Attorney General Lisa Monaco, head of the Justice Department’s National Security Division.