ANNAPOLIS, Md. — WASHINGTON (AP) — A Navy nuclear engineer with access to military secrets has been charged with trying to pass information about the design of American nuclear-powered submarines to someone he thought was a representative of a foreign government but who turned out to be an undercover FBI agent, the Justice Department said Sunday.
In a criminal complaint detailing espionage-related charges against Jonathan Toebbe, the government said he sold information for nearly 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 in West Virginia on Saturday along with his wife, Diana, 45, after he had placed a removable memory card at a prearranged “dead drop” in the state, according to the Justice Department.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether the Toebbes, who are from Annapolis, Maryland, have lawyers. The Navy declined to comment Sunday.
Professor Michael Greenberger, the Director of UMD's Center for Health and Homeland Security tells WMAR-2 News that the case closely resembles a high profile case from the 1950s, also involving a husband and wife couple.
The FBI says the scheme began in April 2020 when Jonathan Toebbe sent a package of Navy documents to a foreign government and wrote that he was interested in selling to that country operations manuals, performance reports and other sensitive information.
Authorities say he also provided instructions for how to conduct the furtive relationship, with a letter that said: “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.”
That package, which had a return address in Pittsburgh, was obtained by the FBI last December through its legal attache office in the unspecified foreign country. That led to a monthslong undercover operation in which an agent posing as a representative of the foreign government made contact with Toebbe an agreed to pay thousands of dollars in cryptocurrency for the information he was offering.
In June, the FBI says, the undercover agent sent $10,000 in cryptocurrency to Toebbe, describing it as a sign of good faith and trust.
Weeks later, federal agents watched as the Toebbes arrived at an agreed-upon location in West Virginia for the exchange, with Diana Toebbe appearing to serve as a lookout for her husband during a dead-drop operation for which the FBI paid $20,000, according to the complaint. The FBI recovered a blue memory card wrapped in plastic and placed between two slices of bread on a peanut butter sandwich, court documents say.
The FBI provided the contents of the memory card to a Navy subject matter expert, who determined that the records included design elements and performance characteristics of Virginia-class submarine reactors, the Justice Department said.
Those submarines are sophisticated, nuclear-powered “cruise missile fast-attack submarines,” according to the complaint.
The memory card also included a typed message that said, in part: “I hope your experts are very happy with the sample provided and I understand the importance of a small exchange to grow our trust.”
The FBI conducted similar dead-drop exchanges over the next several months, including one in August in Virginia in which Toebbe concealed in a chewing gum package a memory card that contained schematic designs for the Virginia-class submarine and was paid roughly $70,000, according to court documents.
The complaint alleges violations of the Atomic Energy Act, which restricts the disclosure of information related to atomic weapons or nuclear materials.
The Toebbes are expected to have their initial court appearances Tuesday in Martinsburg, West Virginia.
Jonathan Toebbe has worked for the U.S. government since 2012, holding a top-secret security clearance and specializing in naval nuclear propulsion, the FBI says. He has also been assigned to a government-owned laboratory in the Pittsburgh area that officials say works on nuclear power for the U.S. Navy.
No one answered at the Toebbe residence on Sunday afternoon in a waterside Annapolis community by the South River. An outside light was on above the door of their home, and a dog barked inside.
John Cooley, who lives across the street from the Toebbes, said he counted more than 30 FBI agents on his block on Saturday from about 2:30 p.m. until after dark. He said agents went inside the home.
"This information is highly classified, top secret. the revealing of it is a serious violation of federal criminal law," said Professor Michael Greenberger, Director University of Maryland Center for Health and Homeland Security. "If the government is able to prove their case and convince a jury they both would receive up to a life sentence."
"If it hadn’t been intercepted, if he had made contact with an actual foreign intelligence operation as oppose to the FBI pretending that they were foreign, yes its a very important class of weapons of the United States," he continued.