Violations of the Atomic Energy Act

Jonathan Toebbe pleads guilty to selling classified information about American nuclear-powered warships supposedly to a foreign country on Monday. It was revealed that the foreign government representative he was trying to sell the secrets to was actually a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) undercover agent.

Toebbe, 43, and his wife Dianna were arrested by the FBI last October as they had violated the Atomic Energy Act after allegedly abusing his position within the US Navy, obtaining top-secret government information, and proceeding to sell these documents containing the designs and performance of Virginia-class submarines to an unnamed country. It turns out that the FBI had been following his trail and that he was actually selling the information to FBI agents posing as agents of a foreign country.

“Among the secrets the US government most zealously protects are those related to the design of its nuclear-powered warships. 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,” said Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen of the Justice Department’s National Security Division in a press release by the Department of Justice.

Pleading guilty before a federal court in Martinsburg, West Virginia, he and his wife now face prison time between 12 to 17 years with a fine of $100,000. He would be facing life in prison if he were deemed guilty for three counts of the indictment. However, he did plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to communicate restricted data.

Diane and Jonathan Toebbe (Diane Toebbe Instagram). Source:
Diane and Jonathan Toebbe (Diane Toebbe Instagram)

Using Dead Drops To Fully Incriminate The Suspects

Toebbe, who was working with the US Navy under its Naval Propulsion Program in Maryland, had been in communication with undercover agents posing as foreign spies. He allegedly would fill an SD card with top-secret naval data about the Navy’s submarines throughout the years as he had top-secret security clearance. Following his communication with the undercover FBI agents, they would arrange several dead-drops for the “foreign entity” to obtain the sensitive data.

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a dead drop is a phrase used in espionage work wherein a person would leave a package or documents (often highly classified in nature) to a pre-arranged location so that another person could pick up these materials. The intention of a dead drop is to exchange sensitive information so that there is no direct contact between the two, thus potentially avoiding getting caught in the act.

As a law enforcement tactic, having the suspect conduct the dead drops allowed the FBI to build a rock-solid case against Toebbe as the drop location is under video surveillance and it places the suspect at the scene, the evidence of the crime directly in his hands and the intent to illegal convey classified information to unauthorized person all on videotape.

Peanut butter sandwiches and chewing gum

The engineer, who was too fond of his peanut butter sandwich, used said sandwich to conceal the SD card from scanners and security personnel. Other times, he would use a chewing gum package and a sealed Band-Aid wrapper. He would then arrange a deal with the “foreign spies” to schedule a dead-drop.

According to court documents, Toebbe had done four dead drops from June to October 2021. Many of the SD cards that Toebbe sent had included stealth technology and cruise missile technology. Other vital information such as the production of Special Nuclear Material (SNM), naval reactors, and naval nuclear propulsion.

First contact was made through email correspondence, and Toebbe later accepted $10,000 in cryptocurrency in “good faith” on June 8, 2021. On June 26, Toebbe arranged a dead drop with the aforementioned FBI agent where an SD card was placed within a peanut butter sandwich; he received $20,000 in return. A few months after, on August 28, a dead drop was made. This time, with the SD card placed inside a chewing gum package, he received $70,000 in cryptocurrency. During these dead drops, his wife Diana served as the lookout. She pleaded not guilty for her charges, and cases against her remain pending.

“Today, Jonathan Toebbe admitted that he violated federal law when he conspired with his wife to sell sensitive government information to a foreign power,” said US Attorney Cindy Chung for the Western District of Pennsylvania. “My office will continue to work with our law enforcement partners to identify and hold accountable those who would pursue financial gain at the expense of their solemn duty to protect our country’s closely held secrets.”

Together with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), the FBI sees this case as a message to anybody who would betray their country for money. They vow to catch all individuals who engage in espionage, neutralize them, and bring these criminals to justice.