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Husband and Wife Each Get 20 Years for Selling Nuclear-Sub Secrets

spy selling nuclear sub information
Sentencing completed the case in which a Navy engineer attempted to sell nuclear sub details (US Navy file photo)

Published Nov 10, 2022 6:24 PM by The Maritime Executive

The United States completed the sentencing of a suburban Maryland couple, Jonathan and Diana Toebbe, after they previously pleaded guilty to spying charges allegedly attempting to sell U.S. Navy submarine secrets to the government of Brazil. The couple had originally pleaded guilty to the charges earlier this year, but a U.S. federal judge rejected the plea agreement saying the sentences were too short, falling below the minimum sentencing guidelines.

Federal District Judge Gina Groh threw out the original deal that called for about 12 years in prison for Jonathan Toebbe, a nuclear engineer employed by the U.S. Navy, and three years for his wife Diana Toebbe. The couple pleaded guilty for a second time in August 2022 under a new agreement. They were sentenced to 232 months, or over 19 years, in jail for Jonathan Toebbe, and 262 months, more than 21 years, in jail for his wife, Diana Toebbe.

“The Toebbes betrayed the American people and put our national security at significant risk when they selfishly attempted to sell highly sensitive information related to nuclear-powered warships for their own financial benefit,” said Special Agent in Charge Brice Miller of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) Office of Special Projects.  

Jonathan Toebbe held an active national security clearance through the Department of Defense, giving him access to restricted data. He worked with and had access to information concerning naval nuclear propulsion including information related to military sensitive design elements, operating parameters, and performance characteristics of the reactors for nuclear-powered warships.

According to court documents, Jonathan Toebbe sent a package to a foreign government containing a sample of restricted data and instructions for establishing a covert relationship to purchase additional information. He corresponded via encrypted email with an individual whom he believed to be a representative of the foreign government, but who was an undercover FBI agent. 
 
In June 2021, Toebbe delivered an SD card, which was concealed within half a peanut butter sandwich, that contained military sensitive design elements relating to submarine nuclear reactors, to a pre-arranged location. Toebbe received in cryptocurrency $10,000 prior to the drop and an additional $20,000 afterward and in turn, provided a decryption key for the SD card. Two months later in August, he delivered a second SD Card, this time concealing the card in a chewing gum package. He received an additional $70,000. Investigators analyzed the data reporting both times the cards contained restricted data related to submarine nuclear reactors.

“If not for the remarkable efforts of FBI agents, the sensitive data stolen by Mr. Toebbe could have ended up in the hands of an adversary of the United States and put the safety of our military and our nation at risk,” said U.S. Attorney William J. Ihlenfeld II for the Northern District of West Virginia.

The FBI arrested Jonathan Toebbe and his wife on October 9, 2021, after he placed yet another SD card at a pre-arranged drop location in West Virginia. Initially, he told investigators that his wife was not involved but they charged that Dianna Toebbe, who had been a school teacher and a Maryland housewife, assisted her husband including acting as a lookout in June, and again in August and October when he made drops of the top-secret materials at designated locations.

Details about how the FBI was able to intercept the contacts remain confidential. In addition, the Navy was investigating its security to determine how an employee was able to walk out of the Washington Navy Yard with such critical data and how a suburban engineer was able to attempt to contact a foreign government to sell some of the Navy’s most prized information.