It is the startling tale of a committed “anti-James Bond,” a man charged with protecting the secrecy of U.S. diplomatic assets in Guangzhou, China, who ended up doing the very opposite – attempting to pass on confidential information to China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS).
Recent years have witnessed a string of high-profile incidents in which the U.S. Department of Justice successfully prosecuted Chinese nationals seeking to smuggle nuclear components and other sensitive goods out of the country.
However, this week brought to a close the relatively unusual case of U.S. national Bryan Underwood, a former civilian guard at a U.S. consulate compound under construction in China, who has been sentenced to nine years in prison for his efforts to sell for personal financial gain classified photographs, information and access related to the U.S. consulate to the MSS.
While most of this story of espionage-gone-bad is still shrouded in mystery, court documents revealed that 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.
Although the compound was not yet operational at the time, Underwood enjoyed top secret clearances for the explicit purpose of preventing foreign governments from “improperly” obtaining sensitive or classified information from the construction site. As part of his training Underwood received instruction protecting classified information including on security protocols to block photography in certain areas of the consulate.
Allegedly to make up for personal money that he lost in financial markets Underwood used his involvement in a special project from February 2011 as a cover to make contact with the Chinese government. In particular he was said to have written a letter expressing his “interest in initiating a business arrangement with your offices” in which he said, “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 endeavours.”
According to Underwood’s subsequent statements to law enforcement he aimed to earn somewhere between $3 million to $5 million after his efforts to deliver this letter to MSS offices in Guangzhou. Along the way he however ran into a roadblock and was turned away by a guard who declined to accept the letter.
In a testament to both his optimism and his suspicion of Chinese government surveillance, Underwood apparently 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.” While the DOJ did not comment on whether the MSS actually took up the opportunity so conscientiously provided by Underwood, the U.S. government said that it found “no evidence that Underwood succeeded in passing classified information... to anyone at the Chinese MSS.”
Among the various damaging tranches of data that Underwood could have passed on to Chinese agents were photographs that he took in May 2011, using a hidden camera, depicting “areas or information classified at the Secret level,” a schematic that he created listing all security upgrades to the consulate, a diagram of all the surveillance camera locations at the consulate and, most brazenly, a theoretical plan that he put together in which “the MSS could gain undetected access to a building at the U.S. consulate to install listening devices or other technical penetrations.”
Lest there were any doubts about how serious a breach of this sort could have been, an expert at the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security determined that the disclosure to China of several photographs that Underwood took “could potentially cause serious damage to the U.S.”
Despite the seriousness of his offences, after Underwood was flown back home and intensively interrogated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, he was released with certain conditions, including staying within the Washington D.C. metropolitan area and returning to court for a status hearing on September 21, 2011. However in what is no doubt being seen as an embarrassment to the authorities, he instead chose to flee on a bicycle with little more than a “helmet and multiple energy snack bars.”
In an echo of the exposed letter to the MSS that he left in his apartment in Guangzhou Underwood left a fake suicide note at his hotel room in Springfield, Virginia, and “pedalled west out... and eventually boarded a bus... under a false name.” The law however eventually caught up with this runaway agent later that month and he was arrested in a hotel room in Los Angeles, with over $10,000 in cash and 80,000 Japanese yen.
In statement that appeared to reflect as much surprise at Underwood’s actions as it did injury to pride, DOJ officials said he “betrayed America’s trust by attempting to sell access to secure areas of the very U.S. Consulate compound he was charged to protect,” adding that “Access to classified information is a special responsibility to be honoured, not a financial opportunity to be exploited.”