A former U.S. Navy nuclear engineer on Monday pleaded guilty to trying to sell nuclear secrets to someone he believed to be a representative of a foreign nation, the Department of Justice announced in a press release.
Jonathan Toebbe, 42, and his wife Diana, 45, were arrested in West Virginia on Oct. 9 after the FBI and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service determined that the couple from Annapolis, Maryland, had engaged in a "conspiracy to communicate restricted data related to the design of nuclear-powered warships" to a foreign power.
The couple stood accused of sharing sensitive data by concealing SD cards inside a peanut butter sandwich and a pack of chewing gum.
Toebbe's crime, which violated the Atomic Energy Act, carried the possibility of a life sentence in prison. However, as a part of his plea deal, the former nuclear engineer will serve a minimum of 12 and a half years behind bars, the Justice Department noted.
The Washington Post reported that Jonathan Toebbe's plea agreement does not resolve charges against his wife of more than 18 years, Diana Toebbe, a private school educator who is believed to have been a party to the attempted espionage.
Diana Toebbe's lawyers reportedly argued in a court filing last month that there was "no dispute in this case that Mrs. Toebbe went with her husband to three ‘dead drops’ that were apparently part of his scheme to sell classified information to some third country. ... Yet the issue in this case will be whether or not Mrs. Toebbe was complicit in her husband’s alleged espionage scheme."
Jonathan Toebbe had previously maintained that his wife had no knowledge of his attempted espionage. But as part of his plea, he said in court on Monday that he "conspired with Diana Toebbe."
Authorities claim that in June 2021, after an undercover FBI agent sent $10,000 in cryptocurrency to Toebbe as a "good faith" payment, Toebbe and his wife traveled to West Virginia to perform a "dead drop" at a prearranged location. There, Toebbe left an SD card with sensitive information about U.S. submarine nuclear reactors inside a peanut butter sandwich, while his wife allegedly acted as a lookout.
The agent followed up by sending Toebbe $20,000 in cryptocurrency, after which Toebbe sent the agent a decryption key for the SD card. A similar scenario played out two more times over the next several months, according to authorities. On one occasion in August. the agent sent Toebbe $70,000 in cryptocurrency after he concealed another SD card in a pack of chewing gum.
"Among the secrets the U.S. government most zealously protects are those related to the design of its nuclear-powered warships. The defendant was entrusted with some of those secrets and instead of guarding them, he betrayed the trust placed in him and conspired to sell them to another country for personal profit," said Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen of the Justice Department’s National Security Division, in a statement.
"The Department of Justice will vigilantly protect the American people and our nation’s security by investigating and prosecuting those who violate their Constitutional oath and abuse their positions for personal gain," he continued.
"There’s a message here for anyone who would sell out America’s secrets," added Assistant Director Alan E. Kohler, Jr. of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division. "The FBI and its partners will use all our investigative techniques to bring you to justice."
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