(NEW YORK) — A former Marine who was working at a U.S. consulate office in China has pleaded guilty after trying — and failing — to spy for China, the Department of Justice said Thursday.
Bryan Underwood, 32, pleaded guilty to one charge for attempting to pass photographs and access to the U.S. consulate in Guangzhou, China to China’s Ministry of State Security.
After losing over $150,000 in the stock market in March 2011, Underwood, who was working at the time as a contract security guard, wrote a letter to China’s Ministry of State Security in which he expressed his, “interest in initiating a business arrangement with your office,” according to court documents.
“I know I have information and skills that would be beneficial to your offices,” he wrote.
The Justice Department said that Underwood took over 30 pictures of sensitive areas of the consulate and made a document which listed recent security upgrades and the locations of surveillance cameras inside the consulate building.
But Underwood failed to deliver the letter to the Ministry of State Security. He got as far as taking a taxi to the Chinese MSS, but he was turned away by a guard, the DOJ said. Instead, Underwood, believing that his apartment was searched at times by Chinese security officials when he was not present, left the letter and other documents out in the open for them to take. Underwood had “Top Secret” clearance, according to court documents.
Prior to his attempts to establish contact with Chinese intelligence officials, Underwood had been approached by a U.S. counterintelligence official and was asked to participate in a counter-surveillance project designed to alert U.S. officials to attempts by Chinese spies to recruit Americans.
Once Underwood’s efforts were detected, he was interviewed by U.S. law enforcement officials about his scheme and he allegedly told them that he hoped to obtain between $3 million and $5 million from the Chinese for his spying.
“His attempted betrayal was detected before our nation’s secrets fell into the wrong hands,” said FBI Assistant Director in Charge James McJunkin, who leads the FBI’s Washington Field Office.
According to the court documents, a review of the photographs by a Diplomatic Security official determined that 15 of the 30 photographs Underwood had taken were classified at the “Secret” level.
“Disclosure of this material could cause serious damage to the United States by, among other things, assisting a foreign government in planting listening devices (or other surveillance devices) in sensitive areas,” a DOJ statement of fact in the case said.
“Bryan Underwood was determined to make millions by selling secret photos of restricted areas inside a U.S. Consulate in China,” U.S. Attorney Ron Machen said in a statement.
Underwood was arrested and indicted last year on charges of attempting to provide the information to the Chinese and for making false statements to the FBI about his intentions. Underwood allegedly told FBI agents that he was hoping to help the FBI by sharing information with them.
Following his arrest on September 1, 2011, Underwood was released from custody under his own personal recognizance by a federal magistrate but he failed to appear at his next court hearing on September 21, 2011. The FBI subsequently located him in a Los Angeles hotel and arrested him 3 days later.
Normally, those found guilty of espionage-related crimes can face up to life in prison, but in a plea agreement, Underwood may not face more than 19 years.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Ivana Kottasova, CNN
Sugam Pokharel and AJ Willingham, CNN
Alanna Petroff, CNN