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Former Navy nuclear engineer pleads guilty in conspiracy to sell US submarine secrets

The U.S. District Courthouse in Martinsburg, West Virginia. (Alex Mann/Baltimore Sun/TNS)
February 15, 2022

A former Navy nuclear engineer from Annapolis admitted in a West Virginia federal court Monday that he conspired to sell classified military information about nuclear submarines to a foreign government.

Jonathan Toebbe, 43, entered the guilty plea in the W. Craig Broadwater Federal Building and United States Courthouse, which is not far from where he and his wife, Diana, were arrested in October.

Toebbe divulged thousands of pages of documents with schematic designs, operating parameters and performance characteristics about “nuclear-powered cruise missile fast-attack submarines,” known in the U.S. Navy as the Virginia-class of submarines, according to his plea.

The crime of conspiring to communicate restricted data to a person with the intent to injure the U.S. or provide an advantage to a foreign nation carries a maximum penalty of life in prison. However, Toebbe’s attorney and the government agreed as part of his plea to argue for a sentence between 12 1/2 and 17 1/2 years in prison. His sentencing hearing has not been scheduled yet.

Toebbe told U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert W. Trumble that he was entering the plea willfully and that he was not doing it to protect anyone else. At the end of the plea hearing, Trumble remanded Toebbe to the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service.

“I conspired with Diana Toebbe to transmit restricted data to a foreign country,” Toebbe told the judge.

It’s unclear what, if any, implications Jonathan Toebbe’s plea has on his wife’s case.

The husband and wife have insisted Diana Toebbe is innocent. Her attorneys pushed for her release pending trial, arguing she wasn’t privy to her husband’s scheme to divulge classified information. A magistrate judge denied that request and she appealed.

The last sentence of Jonathan Toebbe’s plea agreement says in bold type the government has “no agreements, understandings or promise” with Toebbe other than those outlined in his plea, which explicitly names Diana Toebbe as his co-conspirator.

Her attorney, Barry Peck, did not respond to a request for comment Monday evening.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jarod Douglas deferred questions to a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of West Virginia, who declined to comment about the open case.

The office distributed a news release with statements from a range of Department of Justice officials touting the guilty plea was a result of a diligent investigation.

“Among the secrets the U.S. government most zealously protects are those related to the design of its nuclear-powered warships,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen for National Security. “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.”

Alan Kohler Jr., the assistant director of FBI’s Counterintelligence Division, said in a statement that the plea should serve as a deterrent to similar offenses.

“There’s a message here for anyone who would sell out America’s secrets. The FBI and its partners will use all our investigative techniques to bring you to justice,” Kohler said.

In court, Toebbe wore an orange jumpsuit from the West Virginia Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. His shaggy beard protruded from beneath a face mask and his hands were handcuffed and connected to a belly chain. He answered Trumble’s questions clearly and asked no questions.

Douglas summarized the facts agreed to by Toebbe and the government as part of the plea agreement.

Having worked since 2012 on projects related to naval nuclear propulsion, Toebbe held a top-secret security clearance, according to federal investigators. They said it’s possible he’d been collecting information related to the Navy’s nuclear endeavors throughout his tenure with the program and, at some point in 2020, sought out a foreign country to share it with.

In April 2020, Toebbe sent a sample of restricted data to a country not identified in court records, asking the recipient to share it with their military intelligence agency and promising his information would “be of great value to your nation,” according to court records. Toebbe’s letter was shared with an FBI attache, prompting federal agents to launch an undercover operation.

Over more than a year, undercover agents communicated with Toebbe over an encrypted email service and facilitated the displaying of a discrete signal in Washington, D.C., as well as a series of four “dead drops” in 2021 in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Virginia. The agents transferred cryptocurrency to Toebbe after picking up the SD cards he left in predetermined locations and Toebbe followed up with a key to decrypt the information.

Toebbe concealed the digital memory devices in a peanut butter sandwich, a Band-Aid wrapper and a chewing gum package.

In sum, the government paid Toebbe the equivalent of $100,000 in cryptocurrency. Federal authorities have not located the money it paid Toebbe, nor thousands of pages of additional documents Toebbe claimed to have had.

As part of his plea, Toebbe agreed to help federal agents find the money and classified records. If he fails to cooperate, the government can back out of its obligations under the plea, but Toebbe would not be able to withdraw his guilty plea.

Toebbe’s attorney, federal public defender Nicholas Compton, declined to comment, citing his client’s pending case.

Federal court records offer few clues of the couple’s motivations but show how federal agents built a covert relationship with Jonathan Toebbe over time. With each exchange of information, agents gleaned more about the people they were dealing with: Jonathan, the nuclear engineer, and Diana, 46, a humanities teacher at the Key School in Annapolis.

The FBI followed the couple to the drop sites and watched them deposit the information, accusing Diana Toebbe of acting as a lookout on three occasions. Jonathan Toebbe wrote in an encrypted email “only one other person I know is aware of our special relationship,” which was his wife, according to the plea agreement.

A federal grand jury indicted the couple Oct. 19.

As part of his plea agreement, Toebbe also agreed to forfeit all documents, electronic devices and digital media seized from his home in Annapolis, vehicles and his Navy office. His plea says he is not allowed to communicate with foreign governments upon his release but for legal international travel.

Toebbe signed every encrypted email as “Alice,” describing the format of the information he provided and often expressing concerns about the possibility that he may be communicating with law enforcement, which he regularly referred to as “adversaries.”

“Thank you for your partnership as well, my friend,” Jonathan Toebbe wrote in an encrypted email to a federal agent. “One day, when it is safe, perhaps two old friends will have a chance to stumble into each other at a cafe, share a bottle of wine and laugh over stories of their shared exploits.”


© 2022 Baltimore Sun

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