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Traitor who tried to sell American nuclear submarine secrets to a foreign power gets over 19-year prison sentence on his birthday

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Photo by Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The traitorous couple from Annapolis, Maryland, who conspired to sell nuclear submarine secrets to a foreign power didn't think they'd end up doing hard time. They were dead wrong.

Overview

On Wednesday, Judge Gina Groh of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia sentenced former Navy engineer Jonathan Toebbe to over 19 years in prison and his wife, Diana Toebbe — a former private school teacher whom Groh characterized as "a felon of the worst kind" — to nearly 22 years.

In 2020, the couple attempted to sell the technology behind the nuclear reactors powering the U.S. submarine fleet (the Virginia-class attack submarines in particular) to Brazil.

The conspiracy failed thanks to Brazil's help and the couple's combined incompetence and greed.

Mr. and Mrs. Toebbe were arrested in October 2021 and charged with "conspiracy to communicate restricted data" and "communication of restricted data."

They pled guilty in February to participating in a conspiracy to sell confidential submarine secrets to a foreign power and readmitted guilt in September.

The couple entered plea agreements earlier this year hoping for lighter sentencing, but Groh rejected them in August, believing them to be wholly insufficient in light of the seriousness of the crimes committed.

Unsatisfactory pleas

In August, Groh rejected plea deals entered by the couple, calling them "strikingly deficient."

Mr. Toebbe, who had been facing the possibility of life in prison, struck a deal that would have landed him in prison for 12 to 17 years, five years less than he was previously looking to serve.

Mrs. Toebbe agreed to serve three years, which she probably would not have served all of.

"There are lower-level drug dealers that go to prison for way longer than 36 months," said Groh, referencing the sentence proposed in Mrs. Toebbe's paltry plea.

Groh cited a victim impact statement made by Vice Admiral William J. Houston, who said that what the Toebbes had sought to sell was "some of the most secure and sensitive information about our nuclear powered fleet.”

"It's not in the best interest of this community or, in fact, this country to accept these plea agreements," Groh added.

The judge forced the Toebbes to withdraw their pleas and prompted their attorneys to either reach a plea agreement agreeable to the court or otherwise continue to trial.

Sentencing

According to the AP, Groh claimed on Wednesday that the couple posed a "great danger" to national security. It was merely serendipity that their sentences should be given on Mr. Toebbe's 44th birthday.

Jonathan Toebbe was sentenced to 19 years and 4 months in prison and fined $45,700. The court recommended that he be placed in a federal prison in Petersburg, Virginia.

Diana Toebbe was sentenced to 21 years and 10 months in prison and fined $50,000. The court recommended that she be placed in a federal prison near Annapolis, Maryland.

Groh said Mr. Toebbe's "actions and greedy self-serving intentions placed military service members at sea and every citizen of this country in a vulnerable position and at risk of harm from adversaries."

Mrs. Toebbe, 46, received an enhanced sentence for having written to her husband from jail, telling him to lie about her role in the conspiracy and to deceive Groh into thinking she "didn't know anything about any of this." The letters also instructed Mr. Toebbe to flush them after reading.

West Virginia Public Broadcasting reported that Groh called the content of Mrs. Toebbe's letters "obstruction of justice" and an effort to coerce her husband into perjury.

Groh claimed that Mrs. Toebbe lacked genuine remorse and was evidently averse to assuming any responsibility for her role in the treasonous plot.

The Toebbes' crimes

Mr. Toebbe wrote to Brazil's military intelligence agency offering the nuclear secrets in April 2020: "I believe this information will be of great value to your nation. ... This is not a hoax."

Extra to the offer of secret documents, Mr. Toebbe volunteered his expertise to Brazil's nuclear submarine program — experience that relied upon even more confidential and classified U.S. Navy information.

Brazilian officials weren't keen to come between a traitor and American justice. They passed the letter over to an FBI legal official in Brazil.

An undercover FBI agent, pretending to be a Brazilian official, subsequently engaged Mr. Toebbe, persuading him to leave the stolen nuclear submarine secrets at a series of predetermined locations.

Mr. and Mrs. Toebbe complied, transferring restricted data about nuclear submarine designs onto SD cards and leaving them at so-called dead-drop locations over the span of several months.

Mrs. Toebbe left secret information for a source, acted as a lookout, and participated in all but one of the dead drops.

In their efforts to hide the SD cards, they went so far as allegedly wrapping them in a plastic-wrapped peanut butter sandwich, a packet of gum, and a sealed Band-Aid wrapper.

Mr. Toebbe included a message on one of the SD cards that allegedly said: "I was extremely careful to gather the files I possess slowly and naturally in the routine of my job, so nobody would suspect my plan." He also noted, "We have cash and passports set aside for th[e] purpose" of having to flee the U.S.

Despite the Toebbes' attempts at stealth and subterfuge, the FBI claimed in an affidavit that the Toebbes, though careful to use encrypted communications and cryptocurrency, repeatedly slipped up by depositing information in areas where they were easily exposed.

Groh said in court this week that the Toebbes' bizarre effort to undermine American national security "reads like a crime novel or a movie script."

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