Ex-Navy Nuclear Engineer and His Wife Arrested by Feds on Espionage Charges

USS Annapolis
The Navy's USS Annapolis nuclear submarine.Getty Stock

The former Navy nuclear engineer was arrested following a sting operation in which the suspect didn't know he was actually selling secrets to a FBI agent, the Justice Department said.

A former U.S. Navy nuclear engineer officer and his wife have been arrested on espionage charges after they allegedly sold submarine intelligence to what they thought was a foreign entity, according to the Justice Department.

Jonathan Toebbe, 42, and wife Diana, 45, allegedly passed on restricted information concerning the design of nuclear-powered warships during a sting operation that lasted for more than a year, according to federal authorities.

The couple were arrested Saturday in West Virginia and charged with violating the Atomic Energy Act, the Justice Department said in a statement. Their first court appearance is scheduled for Tuesday. 

Toebbe had an active Defense Department national security clearance that allowed him access to sensitive military data, federal authorities said.

He had received the Navy/Marine Corps Commendation Medal, the National Defense Service Medal and the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal before leaving the military in 2020, according to the Navy.

Federal authorities had detected Toebbe was trying to sell classified information about nuclear submarines after obtaining an April 2020 package seeking to establish "a covert relationship" with the representative of a foreign country, according to the statement. Federal authorities said the package contained a sample of classified data and instructions for buying more military information.

"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," investigators said in a criminal complaint.

Federal authorities have not identified the foreign country.

The package also contained correspondence stating, "I apologize for this poor translation into your language. Please forward this letter to your military intelligence agency. I believe this information will be of great value to your nation. This is not a hoax," the missive read, according to the complaint.

Afterward, Toebbe began communicating via encrypted email with a person he thought was the foreign government representative, the Justice Department said. He was actually writing to an undercover FBI agent, authorities said.

Over the following months, Toebbe and his wife allegedly left "dead drops" of classified data in public places. Data cards were hidden in objects such as a peanut butter sandwich and a sealed Band-Aid, according to authorities. The FBI then paid for the data in a series of crypto currency deposits totaling $100,000, the Justice Department said.

The information contained classified data about nuclear submarine reactors and their design, the complaint said. 

In the encrypted emails, Toebbe allegedly explained how he gathered the restricted intelligence.

"You asked if I am working alone," he allegedly wrote. "I am working alone. There is only one other person I know is aware of our special relationship, and I trust that person absolutely. I was extremely careful to gather the files I possess slowly and naturally in the routine of my job, so nobody would suspect my plan. We received training on warning signs to spot insider threats. We made very sure not to display even a single one. I do not believe any of my former colleagues would suspect me, if there is a future investigation."

The couple was arrested Saturday after Toebbe left another data card at a "dead drop" in West Virginia, the Justice Department said.

United States Attorney General Merrick B. Garland praised the undercover operation.

"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," he said in a statement.

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