Former Navy Nuclear Engineer and Wife Arrested on Espionage Charges

FILE - In this Aug. 19, 2021 file photo provided by U.S. Navy, the Los Angeles-class fast attack submarine USS Oklahoma City (SSN 723) returns to U.S. Naval Base in Guam, Aug. 19, 2021. As tensions between France and the United States simmered this week over an Indo-Pacific defense deal …
Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Naomi Johnson/U.S. Navy via AP, File

A former Navy nuclear engineer who reportedly had access to military secrets has been charged with trying to pass classified information to a foreign government.

According to court documents unsealed on Sunday, the Department of Justice charged Jonathan Toebbe and his wife, Diana Toebbe, with violating the Atomic Energy Act by allegedly trying to pass along secrets pertaining to the designs of U.S. nuclear submarines. Toebbe reportedly had never actually been in contact with a foreign government and “unwittingly communicated with FBI agents and passed along sensitive military secrets, in a scheme that stretched nearly a year,” reports National Public Radio (NPR):

The 42-year-old former lieutenant in the Navy and his wife, 45, sold restricted information “concerning the design of nuclear-powered warships” to someone they believed was a representative of an unnamed foreign power, according to federal law enforcement officials.

The FBI picked up on Toebbe’s attempts to reach a foreign agent just after he had left the Navy, according to court records.

Toebbe had clearance to access classified documents through the Department of Defense.

According to investigators, in December 2020, Toebbe sent a package to the undercover FBI official attempting to establish a “covert relationship” with a foreign country that remains unidentified, with court documents listing it only as “COUNTRY1.”

“I apologize for this poor translation into your language. Please forward this letter to your military intelligence agency,” a letter from Toebbe reportedly stated. “I believe this information will be of great value to your nation. This is not a hoax.”

Investigators said that the package contained “U.S. Navy documents, a letter containing instructions, and an SD card containing specific instructions on how COUNTRY1 should respond using an encrypted communication platform, and additional documents.”

Toebbe later sent a package to the FBI agent in April that “contained a sample of restricted data and instructions for purchasing additional information”:

Over the course of several months, the FBI, posing as agents of the foreign country, communicated with the person via encrypted email.

The FBI agents suggested a meeting, but the person said the situation was risky, noting that they were risking their life in offering the information to the supposed foreign agent.

The DOJ says that in March 2021, Toebbe wrote that a cryptocurrency payment equivalent to $100,000 “should be enough to prove to me that you are not an unwelcome third party looking to make trouble for me,” according to court documents.

Eventually, the FBI agent convinced Toebbe to do a “dead drop” of information in late June in West Virginia near the borders of Maryland and Virginia. His wife allegedly served as the “lookout.” Court documents say that agents found a 16-gigabyte data card “wrapped in plastic and placed between two slices of bread on a half of a peanut butter sandwich. The half sandwich was housed inside of a plastic bag.” The card allegedly contained “militarily sensitive design elements, operating parameters, and performance characteristics of Virginia-class submarine reactors.”

Toebbe would allegedly go on to make two more dead drops of classified information – one on August 28 and one on October 9 – until the FBI arrested him and his wife after he was paid $70,000 in cryptocurrency.

“The work of the FBI, Department of Justice prosecutors, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and the Department of Energy was critical in thwarting the plot charged in the complaint and taking this first step in bringing the perpetrators to justice,” said Attorney General Merrick B. Garland.

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