A federal judge sentenced a former U.S. security guard in China on Tuesday to nine years in prison for trying to sell photos and other secret information to China's Ministry of State Security, about half what prosecutors had requested.
Before sentencing Bryan Underwood, U.S. District Court Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle noted the obstacles he had overcome — including mental health problems — and his ill-conceived plan.
"This is the most half-baked treason I've ever heard of," she said.
The Justice Department says Underwood took photographs of restricted areas at the new U.S. consulate in Guangzhou and planned to use them to help China eavesdrop on U.S. officials. The department said that Underwood had lost nearly $160,000 in the stock market and hoped to make $3 million to $5 million. Underwood wrote a letter expressing his desire to work for the China ministry, but was turned away when he attempted to deliver it.
Last year, he pleaded guilty to attempting to communicate national defense information to a foreign government.
"I'm sorry that I've shamed the country," a sobbing Underwood told the judge before she sentenced him. "It just seemed like I was behind the eight-ball my whole life." He told her he was a paranoid-schizophrenic, and that his condition worsened when he joined the Marines. Underwood, 32, wearing an orange prison uniform, said he's gotten better in jail with the help of medication. And he promised to return from jail a new man.
Underwood ended with a quote from the Bible's Romans 5, "Rejoice in our suffering."
From November 2009 to August 2011, Underwood was a civilian American guard with top secret clearance; his job included preventing foreign governments from improperly obtaining sensitive or classified information from the U.S. consulate.
The government had argued that Underwood's activities could have harmed national security and asked for a sentence of 17 ½ years. Under federal sentencing guidelines, Underwood had faced a sentence of 15 to 20 years.
But Huvelle concluded that no harm was actually done. She also, on two occasions, said that Underwood had led "an exemplary life" before this, despite a horrible upbringing that included abusive and alcoholic parents. Underwood's father had tried to kill him numerous times, according to defense lawyer Erich C. Ferrari. Underwood graduated from college and served a tour in Iraq.
Even prosecutor John K. Han said that it was a sad day, in part because Underwood had "overcome many obstacles."
Huvelle said she found it "baffling" that Underwood could have gotten his clearance that enabled to get his job at the consulate. She compared his unsuccessful attempt to hand over a letter to a local police station to a homeless person walking up to a bank.
"No wonder he wasn't taken seriously," she said.
And the judge said he wasn't driven by ideology, or even greed, but an attempt to dig himself out of a financial hole.
"He was not thinking straight," Huvelle said. "This was just blundering."
Follow Fred Frommer on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ffrommer