ANNAPOLIS, Md. - A Navy nuclear engineer from Annapolis and his wife have been indicted for trying to sell nuclear submarine secrets to an undercover FBI agent posing as a representative from a foreign government.
Jonathan and Diana Toebbe are charged with one count of conspiracy to communicate restricted data and two counts of communication of restricted data.
Prosecutors say the pair spent nearly a year trying to sell information about the design of nuclear-powered submarines to the person they thought represented a foreign country.
The pair were arrested last week in West Virginia after Toebbe placed a removable memory card at a prearranged "dead drop" in the state, according to the Justice Department.
The FBI says the scheme began in April 2020 when Jonathan Toebbe sent a package of Navy documents to a foreign government and wrote that he was interested in selling to that country operations manuals, performance reports and other sensitive information.
Authorities say he also provided instructions for how to conduct 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."
That package, which had a return address in Pittsburgh, was obtained by the FBI last December through its legal attache office in the unspecified foreign country. That led to a months-long undercover operation in which an agent posing as a representative of the foreign government made contact with Toebbe and agreed to pay thousands of dollars in cryptocurrency for the information he 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.
Weeks later, federal agents watched as the Toebbes arrived at an agreed-upon location in West Virginia for the exchange, with Diana Toebbe appearing to serve as a lookout for her husband during a dead-drop operation for which the FBI paid $20,000, according to the complaint. The FBI recovered a blue memory card wrapped in plastic and placed between two slices of bread on a peanut butter sandwich, court documents say.
The FBI provided the contents of the memory card to a Navy subject matter expert who determined that the records included design elements and performance characteristics of Virginia-class submarine reactors, the Justice Department said.
Court documents describe those submarines as nuclear-powered "cruise missile fast-attack submarines."
The memory card also included a typed message that said, in part: "I hope your experts are very happy with the sample provided and I understand the importance of a small exchange to grow our trust."
The FBI conducted similar dead-drop exchanges over the next several months, including one in August in Virginia in which Toebbe was paid roughly $70,000 and concealed in a chewing gum package a memory card that contained schematic designs for the Virginia-class submarine, according to court documents.
The complaint alleges violations of the Atomic Energy Act, which restricts the disclosure of information related to atomic weapons or nuclear materials.
Toebbe has worked for the U.S. government since 2012, holding a top-secret security clearance and specializing in naval nuclear propulsion, the FBI says. He has also been assigned to a government-owned laboratory in the Pittsburgh area that officials say works on nuclear power for the U.S. Navy.
No one answered at the Toebbe residence on Sunday afternoon in a waterside Annapolis community by the South River. An outside light was on above the door of their home, and a dog barked inside.
John Cooley, who lives across the street from the Toebbes, said he counted more than 30 FBI agents on his block on Saturday from about 2:30 p.m. until after dark. He said agents went inside the home.
The Associated Press contributed to this report