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Report: American Couple Attempted to Sell Submarine Secrets to Brazil

alvaro alberto
Illustration of the future Alvaro Alberto, Brazil's planned nuclear submarine (Brazilian Navy)

Published Mar 16, 2022 9:45 PM by The Maritime Executive

The American couple who have pleaded guilty to attempting to sell nuclear submarine secrets to a foreign power were trying to market classified data to Brazil, according to a new report from the New York Times. 

American officials quietly confirmed to the Times that naval engineer Jonathan Toebbe approached Brazil's military intelligence agency with an offer to sell plans for the U.S. Navy's Virginia-class nuclear submarine in 2020. Prosecutors allege that he had encouragement and support from his wife, Dianna Toebbe, who allegedly told him that there were no ethical problems in giving away secrets to an allied nation. 

Brazil has been attempting to build a nuclear-powered attack sub for decades. Though the nation has not engaged in naval conflict since 1945 and faces few peer-adversary threats, the Brazilian Navy desires to have up to four nuclear-powered submarines for the defense of home waters. Brazilian state-owned defense contractor ICN has been developing a first-in-class nuclear sub since 2008, under a cooperation agreement with France's Naval Group, and it got the green light to proceed with hull construction in December 2021. 

When Mr. Toebbe contacted Brazilian intelligence and offered to sell American secrets, Brazilian officials informed the FBI of the plot. An FBI agent contacted Toebbe and pretended to be a Brazilian spy, gradually gaining his trust. For just $10,000, Toebbe allegedly agreed to sell the agent a sample of America's most valuable nuclear secrets - secrets that cost the Navy tens of billions of dollars and seven decades of R&D to refine.

On June 8, 2020, the FBI agent transferred $10,000 in cryptocurrency to Toebbe as a "good faith" advance payment. A few weeks later, both of the Toebbes traveled to a prearranged "dead drop" location in West Virginia. They allegedly deposited half a peanut butter sandwich containing an SD card, which - when retrieved by the FBI - turned out to contain restricted data related to submarine nuclear reactors.

The Toebbes allegedly made two more "dead drop" deposits for higher bribe amounts. On the third drop, the FBI moved in and arrested both of them. In February, Mr. Toebbe pleaded guilty to espionage and Mrs. Toebbe pleaded guilty to conspiracy to communicate Restricted Data (a legal term for U.S. nuclear secrets). The plea deal recommends a sentence of 12 years for Mr. Toebbe and three years for Mrs. Toebbe.