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Former civilian guard at U.S. consulate in China admits to trying to sell top secret access

A former cleared American guard (CAG) at a U.S. consulate under construction in China admitted on Aug. 30 to trying to sell access to, and photos of restricted areas of the site, to Chinese intelligence officials so they could plant listening devices and thwart security measures there.

The former guard, Bryan Underwood, worked at the U.S. consulate to China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS) in Guangzhou, China between 2009 and 2011. According to court documents, he faced dire personal financial issues and sought out Chinese officials, offering access to, and photos of, the site for millions of dollars.

The documents showed Underwood had written 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.” 

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 U.S. consulate, said the Justice Department in an Aug. 30 statement outlining Underwood’s plea.

Underwood looked to sell photos and access to the consulate site for between $3 to $5 million after losing a “substantial” amount of money in the stock market in March 2011, according to court documents. Court documents also showed Underwood had tried to hand-deliver the letter to the Chinese MSS, but a guard there refused to accept it. They also showed he sneaked a camera into the U.S. site and took pictures of classified areas and created a schematic drawing of the building listing the facility’s security upgrades and a diagram of surveillance camera locations.

“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.  The lengthy prison sentence facing Underwood should chasten anyone who is tempted to put our nation at risk for personal gain.”

In federal court on Aug. 30, Underwood plead guilty 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 faces life in prison at a sentencing hearing scheduled for mid-November, said the Department of Justice.