Nuclear Engineer Pleads Guilty in U.S. Navy Submarine Espionage Case

Nuclear engineer pleaded quilty to espionage
Nuclear engineer pleaded guilty for attempting to sell details of the propulsion system of the U.S. Navy's submarines (US Navy file photo)

Published Feb 15, 2022 1:48 PM by The Maritime Executive

Four months after his arrest, a nuclear engineer working for the U.S. Navy on top secret nuclear propulsion system pleaded guilty on one charge of espionage. The U.S. Government accused the engineer and his wife of attempting to sell details from the Navy's latest generation of attack submarines, the Virginia-class, to an unspecified “foreign nation.”

The nuclear engineer, Jonathan Toebbe will serve a minimum of 12 and a half years in federal prison after he pleaded guilty to one count of “conspiracy to communicate Restricted Data.” He was arrested in October 2021, along with his wife, and charged with one count of conspiracy and two additional counts of communicating restricted data after having made two drops to an individual that he thought was a representative of a foreign nation but turned out to be an undercover FBI agent. The charges carried a maximum penalty of up to life in prison, a fine of up to $100,000, and five years of supervised release. 

“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.

The details of the case read like a spy novel but they left the Department of the Navy and its Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program, known as Naval Reactors, “red-faced,” and embarrassed that a suburban Maryland couple was able to walk away with such highly restricted data and launch the international espionage incident. The FBI has not explained how it was able to intercept Toebbe’s attempt to make contact with a foreign nation.

According to his plea, Toebbe admitted that in April 2020 he sent a package to a foreign government containing a sample of the restricted data along with instructions for establishing a covert relationship to purchase additional naval secrets. Toebbe then began corresponding via encrypted email with an individual whom he believed to be a representative of the foreign government. The communications continued for several months leading to an agreement to sell information in exchange for thousands of dollars in cryptocurrency to a person who turned out to be an undercover FBI agent. 

Toebbe made his first data drop on June 26 with the FBI reporting that he placed an SD computer card loaded with military sensitive design elements relating to submarine nuclear reactors into half a peanut butter sandwich. The agent had sent Toebbe $10,000 in cryptocurrency as a “good faith” payment followed by an additional $20,000 cryptocurrency payment for a decryption key for the SD Card.

An analysis of the first card confirmed the restricted nature of the data and led to a second transaction on August 28. Toebbe made another drop of an SD card this time concealed in a bubble gum package and received an additional $70,000 in cryptocurrency.

The FBI arrested Toebbe and his wife on October 9, while the nuclear engineer was attempting to make the third drop. This time he hid the SD card in a Band-Aid wrapper.

As part of his plea deal, Toebbe has agreed to work with the FBI to recover the cryptocurrency he received in payments. The FBI detailed a total of $100,000 in payments. He will also help the FBI to recover additional restricted information that he took from his work location at the Washington Navy Yard.

The engineer’s wife, Diana Toebbe, was not part of the plea deal. He had previously said that his wife was innocent and at other times said she aided including acting as a lookout during the drops. It is being reported that in his plea the husband now says his wife committed multiple acts to support the conspiracy. She had been working as a private school teacher before her arrest.