A former Navy nuclear engineer admitted in federal court on Monday that he tried to sell sensitive secrets about nuclear-powered warships to a foreign country.
Jonathan Toebbe, 43, pleaded guilty in federal court in West Virginia to conspiring to communicate restricted data, admitting to U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert Trumble that he had sought to sell U.S. secrets “in exchange for payment with the intent to injure the United States.” Under his deal with federal prosecutors, he faces a sentence of roughly between 12 and 17 years in prison. No sentencing date has been set.
“Among the secrets the U.S. government most zealously protects are those related to the design of its nuclear-powered warships,” Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen said in a statement. “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.”
Toebbe also agreed to turn over all sensitive government information in his possession, and to return about $100,000 in cryptocurrency that the undercover FBI agent paid him in exchange for the highly restricted information.
The Annapolis, Md., man and his wife, Diana, were arrested in October after a yearlong FBI sting investigation in which the couple believed they were selling secrets to a foreign government. An attorney for Toebbe did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Toebbe’s plea did not resolve the charges involving his wife.
Toebbe served as a nuclear engineer in the Navy and had a security clearance that gave him access to secrets about the propulsion systems of nuclear-powered warships.
In April 2020, the FBI alleged, the Toebbes sent a package to a foreign government that contained secret government information and instructions on how to contact him. The government, which was not identified in court papers, forwarded the information to the FBI and the agency began its undercover sting operation in December of that year.
An FBI agent, pretending to be a representative of the foreign government, began months of email correspondence with Toebbe seeking to arrange the sale of U.S. secrets, according to court papers.
In June, the undercover agent sent $10,000 in cryptocurrency to Toebbe as a “good faith payment,” court papers allege. A few weeks later, court papers say, Toebbe and his wife traveled to an arranged “dead drop” location in West Virginia, where he left a data card hidden in a peanut butter sandwich. His wife allegedly stood as lookout.
The undercover agent sent Toebbe $20,000 in cryptocurrency in exchange for the information, which contained information on submarine nuclear reactors, court papers said.
The undercover agent paid Toebbe $70,000 in cryptocurrency in exchange in August for another data card, this time concealed in a chewing gum package left at a “dead drop” in Virginia.
He and his wife were arrested by the FBI and the Navy’s Criminal Investigation Service in West Virginia on October 9 as they dropped off more government secrets.