A US Navy nuclear engineer and his wife have been sentenced to long prison terms for plotting to sell submarine secrets to a foreign country – often hidden in chewing gum wrappers to peanut butter sandwiches.
Jonathan Toebbe, 44, and his wife, Diana Toebbe, 46, pleaded guilty in February to conspiring to sell information related to naval nuclear propulsion systems.
- Jonathan Toebbe, 44, and his wife, Diana Toebbe, 46, pleaded guilty in February to conspiring to sell information related to naval nuclear propulsion systems
- Jonathan was sentenced to 19 years and three months in prison while Diana received a prison term of 21 years and eight months
- According to court documents, Diana acted as a lookout while her husband delivered highly classified information on nuclear submarine technology
- Jonathan was alleged to have been concealing memory cards in a chewing gum wrapper, a Band-Aid wrapper and a peanut butter sandwich
- The foreign buyer was not identified by the US authorities but The New York Times, citing people briefed on the investigation, said the country was Brazil
Jonathan was sentenced to 19 years and three months in prison while Diana received a prison term of 21 years and eight months.
According to court documents, Diana acted as a lookout while her husband delivered highly-classified information on nuclear submarine technology to the foreign buyer in a series of ‘dead drops’ in the region around their Annapolis, Maryland, home.
Jonathan was accused of depositing memory cards containing government secrets, concealing them in objects such as a chewing gum wrapper, a Band-Aid wrapper and a peanut butter sandwich.
The foreign buyer was not identified by the US authorities but The New York Times, citing people briefed on the investigation, said the country was Brazil.
A teacher at a private school, Diana initially pleaded innocent to the charge of conspiracy to communicate restricted data.
But she changed her plea after her husband pleaded guilty and in doing so admitted that his wife took part in the plot.
Jonathan was a nuclear engineer for the US Navy dealing with nuclear submarine propulsion systems when the two were arrested on October 9, 2021 after he hid a small SD card carrying US secrets at a dead drop location in West Virginia.
Court documents described a tantalizing, spy-novel-like plot in which they traveled hundreds of miles to secretly hand over information, took payments in cryptocurrency, and followed signals made from an embassy building in Washington.
In one message, Jonathan indicated he had been considering his actions for several years and was happy to work with ‘a reliable professional partner.’
He also wrote he had divided all the data he had collected into 51 ‘packages’ of information, and sought $100,000 for each.
One memory card included a typed message that said, in part: ‘I hope your experts are very happy with the sample provided and I understand the importance of a small exchange to grow our trust.’
Many of the emails that were exchanged between Jonathan and the representative of the foreign country were transcribed in the court documents. He used two pseudonyms: Alice Hill and Bob Burns.
The messages suggest he was offering the classified information to a power that already has nuclear submarines.
He states in one message that the information ‘reflects decades of U.S. Navy ‘lessons learned’ that will help keep your sailors safe.’
Only six countries currently operate nuclear-powered submarines — China, France, India, Russia, the UK and the US. The US and UK are set to provide Australia with the technology to deploy nuclear-powered submarines, as part of the first initiative under the new trilateral security partnership AUKUS.
Prior to the new deal, which ignited a diplomatic row between Washington and Paris, the US had only shared the technology of its submarines with Britain. Each of these underwater craft costs an estimated $3billion to build.
The country the Jonathan were allegedly trying to sell the nuclear secrets to is not clear and neither are their motivations.
However, court documents suggest it was most likely an ally or neutral government because it cooperated with the FBI during the sting operation to expose him.
But the FBI was following the plot, after having been alerted to it by the target nation in December 2020, though that was nearly nine months after the Toebbes first mailed their offer to the country’s military intelligence.
‘The Toebbes betrayed the American people and put our national security at significant risk when they selfishly attempted to sell highly sensitive information related to nuclear-powered warships for their own financial benefit,’ Brice Miller, a special agent with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, said in a statement.
The couple were arrested last October after prosecutors said he had repeatedly sold information about the submarines to someone he thought was a representative of a foreign government but who was actually an undercover FBI agent.
Toebbe acknowledged during the plea hearing to conspiring to pass classified information to a foreign government, causing ‘injury to the United States.’
Jonathan Toebbe, who as part of his job had a top-secret security clearance, agreed as part of the plea deal to help federal officials with locating all classified information in his possession, as well as the roughly $100,000 in cryptocurrency that was paid to him.
The Toebbes had discussed fleeing abroad, and mentioned practicing their foreign language skills in texts obtained by investigators. They speak French, further fueling speculation that they’d tried to sell the secrets to the European nation.
FBI agents who searched the couple’s Annapolis, Maryland, home found a trash bag of shredded documents, thousands of dollars in cash, valid children´s passports and a ‘go-bag’ containing a USB flash drive and latex gloves.
Diana Toebbe said her husband only wanted to flee the country because she hated Donald Trump, a court has been told.
Lawyers for Diana Toebbe, 45, claim she only wanted to exit the US because of her disdain for the former president, and not because she was worried about getting caught for allegedly trying to sell the classified information.
They made the claim in court papers filed Wednesday, complete with an exchange of messages said to have taken place between Toebbe and her husband Jonathan in March 2019.
Those texts also allegedly saw Diana Toebbe discuss fleeing to France. The country they tried to sell the secrets to has never been mentioned, and is said to be a US ally, although officials told NBC News that France was not the country targeted.
Diana begins: ‘We need to get out.’ Jonathan appears bored with her statement, answering: ‘*sigh* where? To do what?’
His wife then says: ‘To anywhere. To do something else. To teach in international schools. To take Macron up on his offer to harbor scientific refugees.’
In an apparent attempt to calm Diana, Jonathan says: ‘Biden/Warren will curb stomp Trump/Pence.’
But Diana was undeterred, and replied: ‘WE NEED TO GET OUT. Hilary (sic) was going to curb stomp trump. I’m done.’
Jonathan touted then then-unpublished Mueller Report into alleged collusion between Team Trump and Russia, which ended up posing no threat to Trump’s presidency.
Shocking emails exchanged between Jonathan Toebbe and undercover FBI agent reveal his plot to sell US nuclear secrets
On December 26, 2020, the FBI initiated the first of several emails to ‘ALICE’ on ProtonMail. The FBI utilized a ProtonMail account utilizing the pseudo name ‘BOB.’ The email stated, ‘We received your letter. We want to work with you. It has been many months, so we need to know if you are still out there. Please respond to this message, then we will provide instructions on how to proceed.’
On February 10, 2021, ‘ALICE’ responded and stated, ‘Thank you for contacting me. I am still here. The covid disease has made it more difficult to find chances to check this email. Let us discuss how to proceed.’
On February 24, 2021, an FBI agent acting in an undercover capacity (‘the UC’) responded and stated, ‘We understand the delay and hope you are well. Our experts reviewed the information you provided. We would like to sample your [US. Navy Information — Specific Sections].’ We have a trusted friend in your country who has a gift for you to compensate for your efforts…
On March 5, 2021, ‘ALICE’ replied with the following. ‘ I am uncomfortable with this arrangement. Face to face meetings are very risky for me, as I am sure you understand. I propose exchanging gifts electronically, for mutual safety. I can upload documents to a secure cloud storage account, encrypted with the key I have provided you. You can send me a suitable gift in Monero cryptocurrency to an address I will provide. 100,000 usd should be enough to prove to me that you are not an unwelcome third party looking to make trouble for me. When I have confirmed receipt of your gift, I will provide you with the download link. We are both protected. I understand this is a large request. However, please remember I am risking my life for your benefit and I have taken the first step. Please help me trust you fully.’
On March 18, 2021, the UC posing as a representative of COUNTRY1 wrote, ‘We understand a face to face meeting would be uncomfortable. We suggest a neutral drop location. When you visit the location alone, you retrieve a g~fi and leave behind the sample we request. We hope to have a very long friendship that benefits mutually.’
On March 22, 2021, ‘ALICE’ replied. ‘I understand your proposal to start a dead drop. I am concerned that using a dead drop location your friend prepares makes me very vulnerable. If other interested parties are observing the location, I will be unable to detect them. I am not a professional, and do not have a team supporting me. I am also concerned that a physical gift would be very difficult to explain if I am questioned. For now, I must consider the possibility that you are not the person I hope you are. It would be very easy for the serial numbers of bills to be recorded. Tracking devices and other nasty surprises must be considered as well. I propose to mod~ your plan in the following ways:
1. I will place the sample you requested on a memory card and place it in a drop location of my choosing… . I am not a professional and I am sure that publicly available information on this subject is incomplete.
2. The samples will be encrypted using GnuPG symmetric encryption with a randomly generated passphrase.
3. I will tell you the location and how to find the card. I will also give you a Monero address. This form of gift protects both of us very well. I am very aware of the risks of blockchain analysis of BitCoin and other cryptocurrencies, and believe Monero gives both of us excellent deniability.
4. Once I confirm receipt of my gift, I will give you the passphrase.
Your friend and I will never go to the same drop location twice. I will give you a new Monero address each time. The decryption key will be different each time. No patterns for third parties to observe. The only electronic footprints will be Proton to Proton, so there is less risk of encrypted traffic being collected for future analysis by third parties. That part is not perfect. Perhaps as our friendship develops we will change addresses periodically?’
On April 1, 2021, the UC posing as a representative of COUNTRY1 responded to ‘ALICE’ and stated, ‘We understand your concern and appreciate the thoughtful plan… as a sign of good faith and trust we wish to pay you the equivalent of 10,000 USD immediately on Monero to address you provided.
Drop locations are safest and allow us to make exchanges without coming in contact and of course leave no electronic footprint… Your proposed method of memory card with encryption/passphrases is acceptable. For the small sample we requested you will receive another 20,000 USD. Once you confirm Monero address we will activate payment. Our next step will be information on the drop location we have selected. This method will build trust between usfor a larger transaction in future. Our experts are interested in the information you have but we insist on maintaining our discretion and security as a priority.’
On April 9, 2021, ‘ALICE’ wrote, ‘I am sorry to be so stubborn and untrusting, but I can not agree to go to a location of your choosing. I must consider the possibility that l am communicating with an adversary who has intercepted my first message and is attempting to expose me. Would not such an adversary wish me to go to a place of his choosing, knowing that an amateur will be unlikely to detect his surveillance? If you insist on physically delivering the package, then it must be a place of my choosing.
I ask you to consider the viability of an electronic dead drop. I can establish an encrypted online storage account without providing any identifying information and without provoking any suspicion…Another possibility occurs to me: is there some physical signal you can make that proves your identity to me? I could plan to visit Washington D.C. over the Memorial Day weekend. I would just be another tourist in the crowd. Perhaps you could fly a signal flag on your roof? Something easily observable from the street, but nothing to arouse an adversary’s suspicion?… ‘.
On April 23, 2021, the UC posing as a representative of COUNTRY1 emailed the following: ‘You do not need to apologize. We appreciate you being careful. That is much better than someone reckless. Your thoughtful plans indicate you are not amateur. This relationship requires mutual comfort. There is risk on both sides and we understand your need for safety assurance of who you are communicating with. As you suggest we can accommodate a signal in Washington D.C. over the Memorial Day weekend. We will set a signal from our main building observable from the street. It will bring you comfort with signals on display from the area inside our property that we control and not a [sic] adversary. If you agree please acknowledge. We will then provide more instruction about the signal. We hope this plan will continue to build the necessary trust and comfort of our identity.’
On May 5, 2021 ‘ALICE’ wrote, ‘I will make plans to be in the capitol [sic] over the Memorial Day weekend. It would be best to leave the signal visible for the entire holiday weekend so I can plan to pass by in the natural course of my tourist day. I may be on foot or passing by in a bus or car or bicycle, so please plan for something easy to spot.
On May 17, 2021, the UC posing as a representative of COUNTRY1 responded and said, in part, ‘We are happy to set a signal to bring you comfort and build necessary trust between us. The signal will be inside our main building from Saturday morning until Sunday evening Memorial Day weekend.’
During the weekend of May 29-30, 2021, the FBI conducted an operation in the Washington, D.C. area that involved placing a signal at a location associated with COUNTRY1 in an attempted effort to gain bona fides with ‘ALICE.’
On May 31, 2021, the FBI received confirmation via the ProtonMail from ‘ALICE’ that the signal was received. ‘ALICE’ also wrote that, ‘Now Jam comfortably telling you your assumption that Pittsburgh would be a convenient location for me is incorrect.. for now I can tell you I am located near Baltimore, Maryland. Please let me know when you are ready to proceed with our first exchange. Once you have dropped location details for me, I will give you the Monero address and prepare the sample you have requested.’ ‘ALICE’ went on to request clarity of the U.S. Navy information requested by the UC posing as a representative of COUNTRY1.
On June 4, 2021, the UC posing as a representative of COUNTRY1 requested the Monero address to provide ‘ALICE’ a payment of $10,000 USD as a sign of good faith and trust. The UC also informed ‘ALICE’ that new communication instructions would be provided at the exchange location.
On June 8, 2021, ‘ALICE’ wrote that, ‘For maximum security it is very important that you do not send Monero to the same address twice.’ ‘ALICE’ then provided the FBI with a payment address. ‘ALICE’ then went on to state, ‘I will place information you have requested~ encrypted, on a memory card along with the address for the second payment you offered in a plain text file. After I confirm the second payment I will provide you with the decryption passphrase using the new communication method. I am also excited to continue our relationship…’
On June 10, 2021, the FBI paid ‘ALICE’ approximately $10,000 USD in Monero cryptocurrency.
On June 17, 2021, ‘ALICE’ thanked the FBI for the first payment and stated that he/she was ‘eagerly waiting for your instructions.’
On June 18, 2021, the UC posing as a representative of COUNTRY1 emailed ‘ALICE’ to provide detailed instructions on servicing a dead drop location in Jefferson County, West Virginia to occur on June 26, 2021.
The UC discussed instructions regarding the next payment to ‘ALICE’ as well as additional assurance that ‘ALICE’ would be paid $20,000 upon the sample verification and authenticity of the information provided at the drop location.
On June 23, 2021, ‘ALICE’ sent the FBI a confirmation email stating, ‘I understand your instructions and am ready to move forward.’
On June 26, 2021, at approximately 10.41 a.m., the FBI observed Jonathan Toebbe physically service a dead drop location in Jefferson County, West Virginia. Records show that Jonathan Toebbe is a government employee working as a nuclear engineer for the United States Navy and holds an active Top Secret Security Clearance through the United States Department of Defense and an active Q clearance from the United States Department of Energy.