A US Navy nuclear engineer and his wife have both been charged with trying to sell secret information about the country’s nuclear submarines in exchange for cryptocurrency payments, having inadvertently made a deal with an undercover FBI agent, the Justice Department has said.
In a criminal complaint outlining the espionage-related charges against Jonathan Toebbe, 42, the government alleged that he sold information to a contact he believed represented a foreign power – although the country was not named in the documents.
The complaint said that Mr Toebbe ‘has passed, and continues to pass, Restricted Data as defined by the Atomic Energy Act . . . to a foreign government . . . with the witting assistance of his spouse’.
After placing a removable memory card at a pre-arranged ‘dead drop’, he and his 45-year-old wife Diana Toebbe were arrested in West Virginia on Saturday.
According to the FBI, the scheme started back in April 2020, when Mr Toebbe sent a package of Navy documents to a foreign government – saying he was interested in selling operations manuals and performance reports, along with other sensitive information.
An accompanying letter said: “I apologise 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 package – which had a return address of Pittsburgh – was received by the FBI’s legal office in the foreign country last December.
An FBI agent posed as a representative of the foreign government, and offered to strike up a deal for the information.
In June, the agent sent $10,000 (£7,343) in cryptocurrency to Mr Toebbe as a sign of trust.
The following week, agents watched the Toebbes arrive at the pre-agreed location in West Virginia, where Mr Toebbe completed the dead drop while his wife served as lookout.
A blue SD card, which had been wrapped in plastic had been placed inside a peanut butter sandwich, was recovered by the FBI, which said it had paid the couple $20,000 (£14,686) for the transaction.
An expert determined that the records on the SD card included design elements and performance characteristics of Virginia-class submarine reactors.
A message on the card also 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 complaint said the FBI conducted similar dead-drop transactions over the next few months, including another in August when Mr Toebbe was paid $70,000 (£51,400).
Both Mr Toebbe – who has worked for the US government since 2012, holding a top-secret security clearance and specialising in naval nuclear propulsion – and his wife are due to appear in a West Virginia federal court on Tuesday.