Annapolis couple charged with espionage, hide top-secret data in peanut butter sandwich

by mcardinal

Chris Lange, FISM News


A Maryland-based nuclear engineer and his wife have been arrested for attempting to sell sensitive military data to a foreign government, according to a federal court document.  

On Saturday, Jonathan and Diana Toebbe were taken into custody on espionage charges in Jefferson County, West Virginia. They are accused of trying to pass top-secret information about U.S. submarine reactors to an individual they believed to be a foreign agent in exchange for thousands of dollars of cryptocurrency, according to a press release from the Dept. of Justice. 

Jonathan Toebbe, 42, was working as a nuclear engineer for the Department of the Navy’s Naval Nuclear Propulsion in April of 2020 when he sent a package to an unnamed foreign government. The package contained a sampling of documents that revealed American nuclear-powered submarine sensitive information and indicated he was interested in establishing a relationship to sell additional data.

In his capacity as a Naval Reactors nuclear engineer, Toebbe had active national security clearance, giving him access to operation manuals, performance reports, and other restricted data on U.S. Navy warships.

Toebbe’s initial communication with the foreign government, according to court documents, reads: “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 message was intercepted and handed over to U.S. authorities.

An FBI agent then posed as a foreign government official for nearly a year and exchanged encrypted email correspondence with Toebbe, in an effort to further gain his trust and obtain the information he claimed he had.

On June 8, Toebbe received a “good faith” payment of  $10,000 in cryptocurrency and made arrangements to do a “dead drop” of top-secret data. Then, on June 26, Jonathan and Diana Toebbe traveled to a prearranged location in West Virginia.

With Diana serving as a lookout, Toebbe placed an SD card containing information about U.S. submarine nuclear reactors inside a peanut butter sandwich and left it at the drop-off site. The undercover agent took possession of the card and sent Toebbe a cryptocurrency payment of $20,000, after which Toebbe provided the agent with a decryption code for the card.

Toebbe made another “dead drop” in eastern Virginia on Aug. 28, this time placing the SD card in a pack of gum. Toebbe received a payment of $70,000 in cryptocurrency and again provided the SD card encryption code.

The couple was placed under arrest by the FBI during a third “dead drop” at another location in West Virginia.

Neighbors of the Toebbes say the couple “kept to themselves” and expressed surprise upon seeing FBI agents searching the couple’s residence Saturday, according to WBAL TV Baltimore.  

The Toebbes are expected to make their first federal court appearance in West Virginia on Tuesday.

The FBI has not revealed what country the couple was attempting to correspond with, or if there is evidence that any information was obtained by a foreign power.