Ex-Navy Nuclear Engineer Pleads Guilty in Submarine Espionage Case

By Isabel van Brugen
Isabel van Brugen
Isabel van Brugen
Isabel van Brugen is an award-winning journalist. She holds a master's in newspaper journalism from City, University of London.
February 15, 2022Updated: February 15, 2022

A former U.S. Navy engineer pleaded guilty on Monday to attempting to sell secrets about nuclear-powered submarines to a foreign country.

As part of a deal with prosecutors, Jonathan Toebbe, 43, admitted to a federal court in Martinsburg, West Virginia, to conspiring with his wife to pass on restricted data, a violation of the Atomic Energy Act that carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.

Toebbe’s wife, Diana, 45, who was charged with helping her husband, is still facing criminal charges. She has pleaded not guilty.

At the time of his arrest on Oct. 9, 2021, Toebbe was assigned to the Navy’s Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program, also known as Naval Reactors, which gave him access to restricted data, including information related to the design of its nuclear-powered warships, according to court documents.

The Justice Department said that for several months, Toebbe was in contact with an undercover FBI agent posing as a foreign official who paid him thousands of dollars in cryptocurrency.

He is also accused of concealing a digital memory card containing classified information in a peanut butter sandwich at a “dead drop” location in West Virginia on June 26, 2021, while his wife kept watch.

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.

The SD card contained “military sensitive design elements relating to submarine nuclear reactors,” the Justice Department said.

On Aug. 28, Toebbe made another “dead drop” of an SD card in eastern Virginia, this time hidden in a chewing gum package. The undercover FBI agent subsequently made a payment of $70,000 in cryptocurrency.

The Justice Department said that memory card also contained restricted data related to submarine nuclear reactors.

Toebbe and his wife were arrested by the FBI in October after placing a third SD card at a pre-arranged “dead drop” at a second location in West Virginia.

Under the terms of his plea deal, Toebbe faces a likely sentence of between 12 years to 17 years in prison. He has also agreed to assist authorities in recovering all restricted or sensitive government data, and the money given to him by the undercover FBI agent.

An FBI agent testified during a court hearing in October that Toebbe asked for $5 million worth of cryptocurrency in exchange for the secret submarine information. A payment made by the FBI to Toebbe worth about $100,000 has not been located, the agent testified.

Reuters contributed to this report.