Navy Nuclear Engineer Arrested for Selling Submarine Secrets to Foreign Government

A Navy nuclear engineer with access to U.S. nuclear-powered submarines has been charged with trying to pass information about the design of those submarines to an undercover FBI agent posing as a representative of a foreign government, the Justice Department said Sunday. 

The Justice Department released a statement announcing the arrest of the Annapolis, MD-based nuclear engineer. “Jonathan and Diana Toebbe, both of Annapolis, Maryland, were arrested in Jefferson County, West Virginia, by the FBI and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) on Saturday, Oct. 9. They will have their initial appearances on Tuesday, Oct. 12, in federal court in Martinsburg, West Virginia,” the announcement read. 

“For almost a year, Jonathan Toebbe, 42, aided by his wife, Diana, 45, sold information known as Restricted Data concerning the design of nuclear-powered warships to a person they believed was a representative of a foreign power. In actuality, that person was an undercover FBI agent. The Toebbes have been charged in a criminal complaint alleging violations of the Atomic Energy Act.”

In a criminal complaint detailing the espionage-related charges against Jonathan Toebbe, the government said he knowingly sold information for the past year to a contact he believed represented a foreign power. That country was not named in the court documents.

Toebbe, 42, was arrested along with his wife, Diana, 45, after he had placed a removable SD memory card at a prearranged “dead drop” in the state, according to the Justice Department.

The advanced nuclear-powered attack submarine and the lead ship of its class, PCU Virginia (SSN 774) returns to the General Dynamics Electric Boat shipyard. (General Dynamics Electric Boat)

“The complaint charges a plot to transmit information relating to the design of our nuclear submarines to a foreign nation,” U.S. Attorney General Merrick B. Garland said in a released statement. 

“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.”

 

Toebbe Was Taking Numerous Precautions

Toebbe joined the Navy in 2012 and trained at the Officer Training Command in Newport, Rhode Island, as a nuclear engineering officer based in northern Virginia and Pittsburgh. He became a lieutenant (O-3) in 2016 and left active duty in 2017. As part of his reserve component commitment, he served as a human resources officer in the reserves until he left the Navy in December 2020.

Toebbe maintained a top-secret security clearance that was renewed in March 2020. He had worked on projects related to the nuclear propulsion of submarines since 2012 and was assigned to the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program.

His wife Diana was a humanities teacher at the Key School in Annapolis just three blocks from their home. She had worked there for the past 10 years. 

The Toebbe home in Annapolis, MD was raided by FBI agents on Saturday. (Baltimore Sun)

According to the criminal complaint, Toebbe sent an unsolicited package in April 2020 to the foreign government, which was described in the complaint only as “COUNTRY1,” containing a sample of restricted data. An FBI official in that country obtained the package in December 2020 and began communicating with Toebbe, posing as an official from the foreign government.

Toebbe then agreed to sell this restricted data to the undercover agent for $10,000 in cryptocurrency. He and his wife traveled to West Virginia where they placed an SD card wrapped in plastic inside half a peanut butter sandwich inside a plastic bag at a designated dead-drop point. His wife acted as counter-surveillance during the drop. The FBI recovered the contents and found it contained classified information about the nuclear reactors on submarines.

The following message from Toebbe, who called himself “Alice” in the communications was also attached.

“I hope your experts are very happy with the sample provided and I understand the importance of a small exchange to grow our trust. Most of the material I possess is similar in format — multiple pages per sheet. Drafted drawings are split over several regular sheets to preserve good detail. And I used color where it seemed important — like graphs with several lines.

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I expect your new communication instructions will be just as clear and safe as your drop instructions. However, I suggest you continue to monitor your Proton until I am able to establish contact with your new method. If there is a problem, I will use it to request help. All of my previous emails have been signed:

Yours truly, Alice

If it is ever necessary to Proton you again, I will end the email with ‘Sincerely, Alice’ instead to assure you the message is from me and that I am not under duress.

Although Toebbe suspected a trap, he continued to pass along more information about his work on nuclear propulsion. 

“I am sorry to be so stubborn and untrusting, but I can not agree to go to a location of your choosing,” he said, as quoted in the criminal complaint. “I must consider the possibility that l am communicating with an adversary who has intercepted my first message and is attempting to expose me.”

Also listed in the criminal complaint was Toebbe’s proposal for compiling the data that he was to pass to his supposed handler and the amount of money he wanted to be paid. 

“I have divided the [REDACTED] into fifty-one packages, all but the last have 100 sheets each. The first contains the [REDACTED] and the first of the drawings. If I understand your letter correctly, you offer an additional 70,000 USD Monero for the [REDACTED]. I propose the same payment schedule for the remaining files: 100,000 USD Monero each for the 49 packages, not an additional for 51. In total $5,000,000 USD Monero.

The amount per transaction is, in part a security measure. As you noted in your letter, U.S. security forces are lazy. They also have limited budgets. Bait of 10,000 or 20,000 USD to catch an agent are within their normal activities. 100,000 USD and more? They may offer it, but they will not deliver such a large amount. New reports confirm this is a common tactic used by the U.S. security forces to expose agents. Please do not be offended by this, but your generosity so far also matches exactly an adversaries [sic] likely play to entrap me.”

The dead drops continued for several months, during one of them, the FBI paid the Toebbes an additional $70,000. In that drop, Toebbe concealed in a chewing gum package a memory card that contained schematic designs for the Virginia-class nuclear attack submarine.

As the pair was being arrested on Saturday in West Virginia, other agents were swarming their home in the Hillsmere Estates neighborhood of Annapolis, FBI spokeswoman Samantha Shero said in a statement to the Baltimore Sun. The Toebbes bought the three-bedroom, split-level in 2014 for $430,000, according to state real estate records.

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