Navy engineer, wife accused of espionage plot

U.S. Navy photo by Thiep Van Nguyen II

A Navy employee and his wife were arrested on Saturday for selling data on the design of nuclear-powered warships for almost a year to an individual they believed to be a foreign government representative but was in fact an undercover FBI agent.

Jonathan Toebbe, 42, and his wife, Diana Toebbe, 45, were arrested by the FBI and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service in West Virginia on Oct. 9 and charged with violating the Atomic Energy Act, according to the Department of Justice.

Jonathan Toebbe is a nuclear engineer for the Navy and was assigned to the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program. Due to his position, he had access to restricted data concerning naval nuclear propulsion.

Diana Toebbe is a humanities teacher. Though her place of work was not stated in the complaint, she is listed as a faculty member at the private pre-K-12 Key School in Annapolis, Md., where she and her husband live. According to the school’s website, she received her bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Santa Cruz and her Ph.D. from Emory University.

According to the criminal complaint, an FBI attaché in an unnamed foreign country received a package on Dec. 20, 2020, from representatives of the country they were in. In April 2020, those representatives had received a package that contained U.S. Navy documents and digital instructions on how the country should respond.

A letter included with the package expressed a desire to sell Navy documents such as “printouts, digital media files containing technical details, operations manuals, and performance reports.”

Beginning on Dec. 26, 2020, the FBI began several email messages with an address on the SD card that had been sent to the foreign country.

In the correspondence, the sender with the alias “ALICE” demanded $100,000 in exchange for a download link leading to classified Navy information.

“I understand this is a large request. However~ please remember I am risking my life for your benefit and I have taken the first step. Please help me trust you fully,” ALICE, now known to be Jonathan Toebbe, said to the FBI agent he believed to be representing a foreign government.

In June 2021, the FBI paid Jonathan Toebbe $10,000 as a sign of good faith. Then, about a week after sending payment, the agency began conducting dead drop operations in Jefferson County, W.Va. A dead drop is a form of exchange commonly used in espionage to drop off information in a hidden spot where a party can receive the information without being seen by the public or police.

During these operations, Jonathan Toebbe was physically seen at the agreed-upon location and was identified as a government employee. Diana Toebbe was observed to be nearby, assisting him with the dead drop operation.

In one instance, Jonathan Toebbe hid an SD inside of a plastic bag that was itself hidden inside half a peanut butter sandwich.

Following this operation, in which the FBI received an SD card from Jonathan Toebbe, another $20,000 was paid to the Navy employee.

In August, Jonathan Toebbe conducted another dead drop operation in which he hid an SD card in a gum wrapper. After he was paid an additional $70,000, Toebbe sent the FBI a decryption key for the SD card. All the information that Toebbe handed over was found to be officially restricted.

The couple was arrested during another dead drop operation at a second location in West Virginia.

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

“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 added.

Tags Classified information Espionage in the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation Merrick Garland Navy NCIS Nuclear Submarines Spies
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