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Illustration by Security Management

U.S. Couple Charged with Attempting to Sell Nuclear Submarine Secrets

On Saturday, the FBI and Naval Criminal Investigative Service arrested an engineer who works for the U.S. Navy and his wife for allegedly selling nuclear submarine technology designs to an undercover FBI agent posing as a representative from a foreign government. The pair face the possibility of a life sentence if found guilty.

According to a release from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), Jonathan Toebbe was assigned to the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program, where he had access to sensitive information regarding nuclear propulsion and related military design elements and operating parameters.

The DOJ release then described the illicit activity for which Toebbe and his wife will be arraigned in a U.S. federal court in West Virginia today. It alleged that in April 2020, Toebbe sent a sample of restricted data he could provide along with instructions for how to establish a covert relationship to a representative of a foreign government. The affidavit filed as part of the criminal complaint against Toebbe noted that the FBI obtained information from this exchange in December, and used the communication instructions to initiate the operation leading to Toebbe’s arrest.

According to Cyberscoop, the email exchanges were conducted using ProtonMail, which encrypts email content and user data making it harder to intercept.

The affidavit described the encrypted email conversation in some detail as Toebbe allegedly negotiated the details of the exchange, showing his caution in some prescient messaging.

“I am sorry to be so stubborn and untrusting, but I cannot agree to go to a location of your choosing,” the affidavit reported in one exchange. “I must consider the possibility that I am communicating with an adversary who has intercepted my first message and is attempting to expose me.”

“Shortly afterwards, on June 26,” the DOJ release said, “Jonathan and Diana Toebbe traveled to a location in West Virginia. There, with Diana Toebbe acting as a lookout, Jonathan Toebbe placed an SD card concealed within half a peanut butter sandwich at a pre-arranged ‘dead drop’ location. After retrieving the SD card, the undercover agent sent Jonathan Toebbe a $20,000 cryptocurrency payment. In return, Jonathan Toebbe emailed the undercover agent a decryption key for the SD card.”

The card contained restricted data. Toebbe made a second drop in eastern Virginia—mixing it up this time by concealing the SD card in a chewing gum package. He was arrested after a third SD card exchange.

“The complaint charges a plot to transmit information relating to the design of our nuclear submarines to a foreign nation,” said U.S. Attorney General Merrick B. Garland. “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.”