Navy Nuclear Engineer Charged With Trying To Sell Submarine Secrets

October 11, 2021Hannah Ray Lambert
The guided-missile submarine USS Florida transits the Mediterranean Oct. 16, 2019. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Drew Verbis.

The guided-missile submarine USS Florida transits the Mediterranean Oct. 16, 2019. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Drew Verbis.

A Navy nuclear engineer and his wife have been charged with trying to pass information about American nuclear-powered submarines to another country, according to the Justice Department.

In court documents made public Sunday, Oct. 10, the Federal Bureau of Investigation said Jonathan Toebbe — with the aid of his wife, Diana — sold information regarding the design of the nuclear propulsion system of Virginia-class attack submarines to a person they believed was a representative of a foreign government.

The foreign country is not named in the court documents.

The investigation into the Toebbes began when authorities say someone sent a package to a foreign government that contained operations manuals, performance reports, and a note expressing a desire to establish a covert relationship.

“I apologize for this poor translation into your language,” the note read. “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.”

Midshipmen tour the control room of an attack submarine during their midshipman summer cruise, July 20, 2018, in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Daniel Hinton.

The country received the package in April 2020. In December, the FBI’s attaché in the foreign country obtained the package, but court documents do not reveal why there was such a long delay or how exactly the package got to the FBI.

The FBI followed the instructions in the package and initiated an encrypted conversation, during which the sender offered to send Navy secrets in exchange for $100,000 worth of cryptocurrency.  

Through a series of messages during the winter and spring of 2021, FBI agents tried to persuade the sender to make a dead drop — a method of passing secret materials using a prearranged location — in exchange for payment. As a gesture of trust building, the FBI agents posing as a representative of the foreign country agreed to place a signal on their “main building” that the sender could see while visiting Washington, DC, over Memorial Day weekend 2021. After the sender accepted the offer, the FBI placed a signal at a location associated with the foreign country in an attempt “to gain bona fides” with the sender, according to court documents.

The sender observed the signal and agreed to make a dead drop. The undercover agent sent $10,000 in cryptocurrency as a “good faith” payment ahead of the drop, federal officials said.

In late June, the FBI watched Toebbe and his wife, Diana Toebbe, approach the dead drop location in Jefferson County, West Virginia, court documents state. As Diana “appeared to act as a lookout,” Toebbe left an SD card hidden in a plastic bag inside half a peanut butter sandwich, court documents allege. The couple left the dead drop location, and after the agent collected the sandwich, Toebbe received an additional $20,000, according to investigators.

The Virginia-class attack submarine USS Virginia gathers advanced information about the terrain with high-resolution cameras. US Navy photo by Chief Petty Officer James Pinsky.

A Navy subject matter expert determined numerous documents on the SD card contained restricted data, “militarily sensitive design elements, operating parameters, and performance characteristics of Virginia-class submarine reactors,” court documents state. Virginia-class submarines are nuclear-powered cruise missile fast-attack submarines with a per-unit cost of approximately $3 billion.

Agents arranged another dead drop in July, during which Toebbe allegedly left an SD card in a sealed Band-Aid wrapper in south-central Pennsylvania; and a third in August, during which agents recovered an SD card hidden in a package of chewing gum in eastern Virginia.

The FBI arrested both Toebbes Saturday after another dead drop in West Virginia, according to the Justice Department. They’re due in federal court Tuesday.

Court documents don’t suggest that the foreign country received any classified information, but according to The New York Times, Toebbe had high-level clearances in nuclear engineering and worked for more than a year from the office of the chief of naval operations. He left the Navy Reserve in December 2020, around the same time the FBI started contacting him.

The Toebbes live in Annapolis, Maryland.

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Hannah Ray Lambert
Hannah Ray Lambert

Hannah Ray Lambert is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die who previously covered everything from murder trials to high school trap shooting teams. She spent several months getting tear gassed during the 2020-2021 civil unrest in Portland, Oregon. When she’s not working, Hannah enjoys hiking, reading, and talking about authors and books on her podcast Between Lewis and Lovecraft.

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