Former U.S. Consulate Guard Sentenced to Nine Years in Prison for Attempting to Communicate National Defense Information to China
Bryan Underwood, a former civilian guard at a U.S. Consulate compound under construction in China, was sentenced today to nine years in prison in connection with his efforts to sell for personal financial gain classified photographs, information and access related to the U.S. Consulate to China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS), announced Lisa Monaco, Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s National Security Division; Ronald C. Machen Jr., U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia; Valerie Parlave, Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI’s Washington Field Office; and Gregory B. Starr, Director of the U.S. State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service.
Underwood pleaded guilty Aug. 30, 2012, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to one count of attempting to communicate national defense information to a foreign government with intent or reason to believe that the documents, photographs or information in question were to be used to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of a foreign nation. He was sentenced by the Honorable Ellen S. Huvelle. Upon completion of his prison term, Underwood will be placed on two years of supervised release.
Underwood, 32, a former resident of Indiana, was first charged in an indictment on Aug. 31, 2011, with two counts of making false statements and was arrested on Sept. 1, 2011. On Sept. 21, 2011, he failed to appear at a scheduled status hearing in federal court in the District of Columbia. The FBI later located Underwood in a hotel in Los Angeles and arrested him there on Sept. 24, 2011. On Sept. 28, 2011, Underwood was charged in a superseding indictment with one count of attempting to communicate national defense information to a foreign government, two counts of making false statements and one count of failing to appear in court pursuant to his conditions of release.
“Bryan Underwood betrayed America’s trust by attempting to sell access to secure areas of the very U.S. Consulate compound he was charged to protect,” said Assistant Attorney General Monaco. “Today, he is being held accountable for his actions. As this case demonstrates, we remain vigilant in protecting America’s secrets and in bringing to justice those who seek to compromise them.”
“Access to classified information is a special responsibility to be honored, not a financial opportunity to be exploited,” said U.S. Attorney Machen. “Bryan Underwood is going to prison because he tried to make millions by selling secret photos of a U.S. Consulate to a foreign government. His sentence demonstrates our dedication to jealously guarding our nation’s secrets. We all owe a great debt of gratitude to the agents who detected and stopped Underwood before he succeeded in betraying our country.”
“Bryan Underwood attempted to betray his country by using his access to sensitive information for his own benefit. Fortunately, he was stopped before classified information fell into the wrong hands,” said FBI Assistant Director in Charge Parlave. “Together with our partner agencies, the FBI will continue to diligently work to combat potential acts of espionage that threaten our national security.”
“The close working relationship between the U.S. Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office resulted in the conviction of Bryan Underwood before he could potentially harm the security of our country,” said Director Starr of the Diplomatic Security Service. “This was a great success by all of the agencies involved.”
According to court documents, from November 2009 to August 2011, Underwood worked as a cleared American guard (CAG) at the site of a new U.S. consulate compound that was under construction in Guangzhou, China. During this time, the compound was not yet operational. CAGs are American civilian security guards with top secret clearances who serve to prevent foreign governments from improperly obtaining sensitive or classified information from the construction site. Underwood received briefings on how to handle and protect classified information as well as briefings and instructions on security protocols for the U.S. Consulate, including the prohibition on photography in certain areas of the consulate.
In February 2011, Underwood was asked by U.S. law enforcement to assist in a project at the consulate and he agreed. In March and April of 2011, Underwood lost a substantial amount of money in the stock market. According to court documents, Underwood then devised a plan to use his assistance to U.S. law enforcement as a “cover” for making contact with the Chinese government. According to his subsequent statements to U.S. law enforcement, Underwood intended to sell his information about and access to the U.S. Consulate to the Chinese MSS for $3 million to $5 million. If any U.S. personnel caught him, he planned to falsely claim he was assisting U.S. law enforcement.
As part of his plan, Underwood wrote a letter to the Chinese MSS, expressing his “interest in initiating a business arrangement with your offices” and stating, “I know I have information and skills that would be beneficial to your offices [sic] goals. And I know your office can assist me in my financial endeavors.” According to court documents, Underwood attempted to deliver this letter to the offices of the Chinese MSS in Guangzhou, but was turned away by a guard who declined to accept the letter. Underwood then left the letter in the open in his apartment hoping that the Chinese MSS would find it, as he believed the MSS routinely conducted searches of apartments occupied by Americans.
In May 2011, Underwood secreted a camera into the new U.S. consulate compound and took photographs of a restricted building and its contents. Several of these photographs depict areas or information classified at the Secret level. Underwood also created a schematic that listed all security upgrades to the U.S. consulate and drew a diagram of the surveillance camera locations at the consulate. In addition, according to his subsequent statements to U.S. law enforcement, Underwood “mentally” constructed a plan in which the MSS could gain undetected access to a building at the U.S. consulate to install listening devices or other technical penetrations.
According to court documents, the photographs Underwood took were reviewed by an expert at the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security who had original classification authority for facilities, security and countermeasures at the U.S. Consulate. The expert determined that several of the photographs contained images classified at the Secret level and that disclosure of such material could potentially cause serious damage to the United States.
In early August 2011, Underwood was interviewed several times by FBI and Diplomatic Security agents, during which he admitted making efforts to contact the Chinese MSS, but falsely claimed that he took these actions to assist U.S. law enforcement. On Aug. 19, 2011, Underwood was again interviewed by law enforcement agents and he admitted that he planned to sell photos, information and access to the U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou to the Chinese MSS for his personal financial gain.
After initially being arraigned in this case on Sept. 1, 2011, Underwood was released on his personal recognizance, with certain conditions, including staying within the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area and returning to court for a status hearing on Sept. 21, 2011. Instead of returning to court as promised, Underwood purchased a bicycle, racks, panniers, helmet and multiple energy snack bars. He left a fake suicide note at his hotel room in Springfield, Va. Then, alive and well, he pedaled west out of Springfield and eventually boarded a bus in Wytheville, Va., under a false name. He was arrested on Sept. 24, 2011 in a hotel room in Los Angeles, with over $10,000 in cash and 80,000 Japanese yen. He has been in custody ever since.
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.
This investigation was conducted jointly by the FBI’s Washington Field Office and the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security. The prosecution was handled by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia and Trial Attorney Brandon L. Van Grack from the Counterespionage Section of the Justice Department’s National Security Division.