US Navy nuclear engineer charged with trying to pass secrets to foreign country

Court documents don’t say what nation Jonathan Toebbe was trying to contact when he sent information about the design of US nuclear-powered submarines

The USS Virginia returns to the Electric Boat Shipyard in Groton, Connecticut, after its first sea trials, July 30, 2004. (AP Photo/ Jack Sauer, File)
The USS Virginia returns to the Electric Boat Shipyard in Groton, Connecticut, after its first sea trials, July 30, 2004. (AP Photo/ Jack Sauer, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — A US Navy nuclear engineer with access to military secrets has been charged with trying to pass information about the design of American nuclear-powered submarines to someone he thought was a representative of a foreign government, but who turned out to be an undercover FBI agent, the Justice Department said Sunday.

In a criminal complaint detailing espionage-related charges against Jonathan Toebbe, the government said that he sold information for nearly the past year to a contact he mistakenly believed represented a foreign power. That country was not named in the court documents.

Toebbe, 42, was arrested in West Virginia on Saturday along with his 45-year-old wife, Diana, after he placed a removable memory card at a prearranged “dead drop” in Jefferson County, according to the department.

It was not immediately clear whether either Toebbe had a lawyer. The Toebbes are from Annapolis, Maryland.

The FBI says the scheme began in April 2020 when Jonathan Toebbe — a US government employee since 2012 — sent a package of Navy documents to a foreign government and said he was interested in selling operations manuals, performance reports, and other sensitive information.

Authorities say he also provided instructions for how to continue to the furtive relationship, with a letter that said: “I apologize for this poor translation into your language. Please forward this letter to your military intelligence agency. I believe this information will be of great value to your nation. This is not a hoax.”

Illustrative photo of a nuclear attack submarine, the USS Columbus. (photo credit: US Navy via Wikimedia Commons)
Illustrative. The USS Columbus, a nuclear attack submarine. (US Navy via Wikimedia Commons)

The FBI’s legal office in the foreign country received the package, which had a return address of Pittsburgh, last December. That led to a months-long undercover operation in which an agent posing as a representative of the foreign government offered to pay thousands of dollars in cryptocurrency for the information Toebbe was offering.

In June, the FBI says, the undercover agent sent $10,000 in cryptocurrency to Toebbe, describing it as a “sign of good faith and trust.”

As part of the operation, authorities say, the FBI observed the Toebbes arrive on multiple occasions at agreed-upon locations for the exchange, concealing an SD card between two slices of bread on a half of a peanut butter sandwich in one instance and in a chewing gum package in another.

The complaint alleges violations of the Atomic Energy Act, which makes it a crime to disclose information about atomic weapons or nuclear materials with the intent of harming the United States.

The Toebbes are expected to have their initial court appearances on Tuesday in Martinsburg, West Virginia.

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