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Former Navy nuclear engineer pleads guilty in espionage case

Written by Nick Blenkey
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Jonathan and Diana Toebbe [Image: West Virginia Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority]

The U.S. Department of Justice reports that Jonathan Toebbe, 43, of Annapolis, Md., pleaded guilty today to conspiracy to communicate restricted data related to the design of nuclear-powered warships to a person he believed was a representative of a foreign nation.

As we reported earlier, Toebbe and his wife Diana Toebbe, were arrested in Jefferson County, W. Va., by the FBI and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) on Saturday, October 9. Both were charged in a criminal complaint alleging violations of the Atomic Energy Act.

In today’s announcement, the Department of Justice says that the arrests were made after Jonathan Toebbe placed an SD card at a pre-arranged “dead drop” at a location in West Virginia. According to court documents, at the time of his arrest, Toebbe was an employee of the Department of the Navy who served as a nuclear engineer and was assigned to the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program, also known as Naval Reactors.

He held an active national security clearance through the Department of Defense, giving him access to “Restricted Data” within the meaning of the Atomic Energy Act. Restricted Data concerns design, manufacture or utilization of atomic weapons, or production of Special Nuclear Material (SNM), or use of SNM in the production of energy – such as naval reactors. Toebbe worked with and had access to information concerning naval nuclear propulsion including information related to military sensitive design elements, operating parameters and performance characteristics of the reactors for nuclear powered warships.

According to his plea, says the Department of Justice, “in April 2020, Toebbe sent a package to a foreign government, listing a return address in Pittsburgh, Pa., containing a sample of Restricted Data and instructions for establishing a covert relationship to purchase additional Restricted Data. Toebbe began corresponding via encrypted email with an individual whom he believed to be a representative of the foreign government. The individual was really an undercover FBI agent. Toebbe continued this correspondence for several months, which led to an agreement to sell Restricted Data in exchange for thousands of dollars in cryptocurrency.”

SD CARDS AND CRYPTO CURRENCY

On June 8, 2021, the undercover agent sent $10,000 in cryptocurrency to Toebbe as “good faith” payment. Shortly afterwards, on June 26, Toebbe serviced a dead drop by placing an SD card, which was concealed within half a peanut butter sandwich and contained military sensitive design elements relating to submarine nuclear reactors, at a pre-arranged location. After retrieving the SD card, the undercover agent sent Toebbe a $20,000 cryptocurrency payment. In return, Toebbe emailed the undercover agent a decryption key for the SD Card. A review of the SD card revealed that it contained Restricted Data related to submarine nuclear reactors.

On August 28, Toebbe made another “dead drop” of an SD card in eastern Virginia, this time concealing the card in a chewing gum package. After making a payment to Toebbe of $70,000 in cryptocurrency, the FBI received a decryption key for the card. It, too, contained Restricted Data related to submarine nuclear reactors. The FBI arrested Toebbe and his wife on Oct. 9, after he placed yet another SD card at a pre-arranged “dead drop” at a second location in West Virginia.

Toebbe pleaded guilty to count one of the indictment charging him with conspiracy to communicate Restricted Data which carries a maximum statutory penalty of up to life in prison, a fine up to $100,000, and term of supervised release not more than five years. Pursuant to his plea agreement, Toebbe will serve a minimum of 151 months, or 12 and a half years, in federal prison. A federal district court judge will determine any sentence after considering the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.

According to the New York Times, “As part of the deal, Mr. Toebbe will help the government recover the cryptocurrency that undercover FBI agents paid him, as well as the classified information he said he had but that he never turned over.”

The New York Times also says that “a key question is whether Mr. Toebbe’s plea deal will result in any leniency for his wife, a former teacher at a private school in Annapolis. While Mr. Toebbe had done little to contest his pretrial detention or the charges against him, Toebbe’s lawyers had mounted a defense that she knew nothing of the plot to steal secrets. While she had gone to the dead drops, set up by undercover FBI officers, she did not know of the scheme, her lawyers said.”

The West Virginia Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority website shows both Jonathan and Diana Toebbe as being inmates there.

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