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Security guard pleads guilty to trying to sell secrets to China

August 30, 2012|By Richard A. Serrano
  • Bryan Underwood faces from 15 years to life in prison for trying to sell U.S. secrets to China.
Bryan Underwood faces from 15 years to life in prison for trying to sell U.S.… (Adam Nadel / Associated…)

WASHINGTON — A former security guard at a U.S. consulate compound under construction in China pleaded guilty Thursday to trying to sell photographs and other classified documents to China in an attempt to dig himself out of financial ruin after losing tens of thousands of dollars in the U.S. stock market.

Bryan Underwood, 32, faces from 15 years to life in prison after admitting Monday in U.S. District Court in Washington that he sought to communicate national defense information to a foreign government. Standing before Judge Ellen S. Huvelle, he told her he was “guilty” of making several overtures to the Chinese government, including a letter offering his “information and skills” to officials with China’s Ministry of State Security.

He was hoping to be paid from $3 million to $5 million, prosecutors said, far beyond his $158,000 in stock losses last year. But Chinese security officers rebuffed his attempt to make contact and no secrets were ever divulged, U.S. authorities said.

Ronald C. Machen Jr., U.S. attorney in Washington, said Underwood “was determined to make millions” by selling secret photos and other materials of the new consulate being built at Guangzhou, China. “His greed drove him to exploit his access to America’s secrets to line his own pockets,” Machen said.

Added Lisa Monaco, assistant attorney general for national security: “Facing financial hardship, he attempted to betray his country for personal gain.”

From November 2009 to August 2011, he worked as an American guard at the construction site. With a top-secret clearance, he was charged with preventing foreign governments from obtaining sensitive or classified information.

According to court documents, Underwood “in mid-March 2011 became panicked about his financial situation when his stock brokerage account was frozen.” The value of his account plummeted from $68,813 in February 2011 to negative $89,624 two months later.

It was at that time he offered his services to the Chinese government.

“I am sending this letter to inform you of my interest in initiating a business arrangement with your office,” he wrote. “I know I have information and skills that would be beneficial to your offices' goals. And I know your office can assist me in my financial endeavors.”

Underwood attempted to hand-deliver the letter to the Ministry of State Security in Guangzhou but was turned away.

Underwood next sneaked a camera onto the consulate facility and snapped photos in a restricted building. The former Indiana resident also devised a “schematic” plan on how listening devices could be installed inside.

In August last year Underwood was interviewed by FBI agents, and prosecutors said he “falsely claimed” he made the overtures at the behest of U.S. law-enforcement officials. He was indicted, but failed to appear in court. On Sept. 24, the FBI tracked him to Los Angeles and arrested him in a hotel room.

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richard.serrano@latimes.com

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