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A former Navy nuclear engineer and his wife have been arrested on espionage charges

The Virginia-class attack submarine USS California (SSN 781) underway during sea trials in Atlantic Ocean on June 30, 2011.
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The Virginia-class attack submarine USS California (SSN 781) underway during sea trials in Atlantic Ocean on June 30, 2011.

Updated October 10, 2021 at 7:19 PM ET

A former nuclear engineer officer in the U.S. Navy and his wife have been arrested on espionage charges, after allegedly attempting to sell secrets about submarines to a foreign entity, according to court records unsealed Sunday.

The Department of Justice says Jonathan Toebbe and his wife, Diana Toebbe, were arrested Saturday and charged with violating the Atomic Energy Act. The department says Toebbe unwittingly communicated with FBI agents and passed along sensitive military secrets, in a scheme that stretched more than a year.

Toebbe held an active national security clearance through the Department of Defense, giving him access to restricted data, authorities said.

The 42-year-old former lieutenant in the Navy and his wife, 45, sold restricted information "concerning the design of nuclear powered warships" to someone they believed was a representative of an unnamed foreign power, according to federal law enforcement officials.

According to a biography provided by military officials, Toebbe had been awarded the Navy/Marine Corps Commendation Medal, the National Defense Service Medal and the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal before separating from the military on Dec. 19, 2020.

Investigators say someone sent a package on April 1, 2020, attempting to establish "a covert relationship" with a representative from the foreign country. The package listed a return address in Pittsburgh, Penn.

Authorities say that package contained a sample of restricted data and instructions for purchasing additional information.

The FBI later picked up on Toebbe's attempts to reach a foreign agent just after he had left the Navy, according to court records.

Investigators say an FBI official received the package intended for a foreign entity on or about Dec. 20, 2020. The country was identified only as "COUNTRY1" in court documents.

"The package contained U.S. Navy documents, a letter containing instructions, and an SD card containing specific instructions on how COUNTRY1 should respond using an encrypted communication platform, and additional documents," investigators said in a court filing.

"I apologize for this poor translation into your language. Please forward this letter to your military intelligence agency," the letter, handed over to the FBI, stated. "I believe this information will be of great value to your nation. This is not a hoax."

The FBI posed as agents of another nation

Over the course of several months, the FBI, posing as agents of the foreign country, communicated with the person via encrypted email.

The FBI agents suggested a meeting, but the person said the situation was risky, noting that they were risking their life in offering the information to the supposed foreign agent.

The DOJ says that in March 2021, Toebbe wrote that a cryptocurrency payment equivalent to $100,000 "should be enough to prove to me that you are not an unwelcome third party looking to make trouble for me," according to court documents.

After some coaxing — including a "good faith" cryptocurrency payment equal to $10,000 on June 8 — the undercover FBI agent convinced Toebbe to conduct a "dead drop" of information on June 28 in Jefferson County, W.Va., along the borders of Maryland and Virginia, according to charging documents.

Toebbe's wife appeared to be "acting as a lookout" when he dropped off the material, according to the Justice Department.

Authorities said military secrets were hidden in a peanut butter sandwich

The FBI later recovered the package Toebbe had left behind. Authorities said they found a 16-gigabyte data card "wrapped in plastic and placed between two slices of bread on a half of a peanut butter sandwich. The half sandwich was housed inside of a plastic bag."

Investigators said the data card contained "militarily sensitive design elements, operating parameters, and performance characteristics of Virginia-class submarine reactors."

Authorities say Toebbe made another "dead drop" on Aug. 28 of an SD card in eastern Virginia, this time concealing the card in a chewing gum package. After making a payment to Toebbe of $70,000 in cryptocurrency, the FBI received a decryption key for the card. Investigators say it, too, contained restricted data related to submarine nuclear reactors.

The couple was arrested following another alleged drop off

The FBI arrested Jonathan and Diana Toebbe on Saturday, after he allegedly placed yet another data card at a pre-arranged "dead drop" at a second location in West Virginia.

Top officials at the DOJ applauded the work of FBI agents in arresting Toebbe and his wife.

"The work of the FBI, Department of Justice prosecutors, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and the Department of Energy was critical in thwarting the plot charged in the complaint and taking this first step in bringing the perpetrators to justice," said Attorney General Merrick B. Garland.

Toebbe and his wife were charged with conspiracy to communicate restricted data and communication of restricted data.

The couple are scheduled to make an appearance in federal court in Martinsburg, W.Va., on Tuesday.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: October 9, 2021 at 11:00 PM CDT
An earlier version of this story misreported the timeline of packages sent by the accused. It has since been corrected.
Dave Mistich
Originally from Washington, W.Va., Dave Mistich joined NPR part-time as an associate producer for the Newcast unit in September 2019 — after nearly a decade of filing stories for the network as a Member station reporter at West Virginia Public Broadcasting. In July 2021, he also joined the Newsdesk as a part-time reporter.