A US Navy engineer by the name of Jonathan Toebbe was arrested for allegedly wanting to sell nuclear submarine secrets.
He was trying to pass information about the design of American nuclear-powered submarines to someone he thought was a representative of a foreign government. It turned out that the individual was an undercover FBI agent.
In a criminal complaint detailing espionage-related charges, the US Department of Justice (DoJ) said Jonathan Toebbe sold information for nearly a year to a contact he believed represented a foreign power.
The country he was allegedly sending secrets to was not named.
Toebbe, 42, was arrested in West Virginia with his 45-year-old wife, Diana Toebbe, after he placed a removable memory card at a prearranged “dead drop” in the state, according to the DoJ.
The FBI claims the scheme began in April 2020 when Jonathan Toebbe 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 conduct the espionage.
“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.”
The FBI 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 said that the undercover agent sent $10,000 in cryptocurrency to Toebbe, describing it as a sign of good faith and trust.
Later on, FBI 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 the dead-drop operation, according to the complaint.
The FBI recovered a blue SD card wrapped in plastic and placed between two slices of bread on a peanut butter sandwich.
The FBI paid Toebbe $20,000 for the transaction and provided the contents of the SD 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.
The SD card also included a typed message that said:
“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 $70,000 and concealed an SD card in a chewing gum package.
Jonathan Toebbe has worked for the US 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 laboratory in the Pittsburgh area that officials say works on nuclear power for the US navy.
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