In the wake of a year-long investigation by undercover FBI agents, a Maryland couple has been apprehended and charged with attempting to sell nuclear secrets of the United States to another country in exchange for cryptocurrency.
The FBI and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service arrested Jonathan Toebbe, a US Navy nuclear engineer with a top-secret security clearance, and his wife Diana on Saturday in West Virginia, according to a Department of Justice statement.
The couple allegedly sold information about the design of nuclear-powered US warships to “a person they thought was a representative of a foreign power but was actually an undercover FBI agent.”
The Justice Department stated in a pair of court filings on Monday that the Toebbes should be held in custody until trial because there is a risk that the couple will flee or destroy evidence. The bare-bones court filings did not go into detail about why prosecutors believe the couple is a flight risk, but they did state that the charges could result in a life sentence in prison.
The couple has not yet entered a plea, and their initial hearing in federal court in West Virginia is scheduled for Tuesday. The Washington Post first reported on the alleged espionage plot.
According to the Justice Department, Jonathan Toebbe possessed knowledge of naval nuclear propulsion and sensitive military design elements, including “operating parameters and performance characteristics of nuclear-powered warship reactors.”
According to an FBI agent, Toebbe initially offered to sell nuclear secrets to a foreign government in April 2020. An undercover FBI agent responded several months later via an encrypted email program and corresponded with him.
According to the complaint, the agent worked to earn Toebbe’s trust before he allegedly agreed to sell the information for thousands of dollars in cryptocurrency.
The FBI said it arrested Jonathan and Diana on Saturday after Jonathan “placed yet another SD card” with classified information at a pre-arranged location in West Virginia during what Toebbe believed to be a “dead drop,” or a hiding spot used by spies to secretly pass information.
The couple has been charged with violations of the Atomic Energy Act, which forbids anyone with access to classified information from disclosing it. It’s unclear if the couple has hired legal counsel yet.
After gaining Toebbe’s trust, the agent attempted to persuade him to meet in person, but Toebbe was afraid of being caught. The agent suggested that he use a dead drop at a location of his choice. Toebbe allegedly wrote in March 2021,
“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.”
Toebbe told the agent that he would never use the same drop location twice. Each time, he will provide the agent with a new Monero address. Each time, the decryption key will be unique. There are no patterns for third parties to notice. Because the only electronic footprints will be Proton to Proton, there is less chance that encrypted traffic will be collected for future analysis by third parties.
Toebbe and his wife traveled to West Virginia in June 2021, where Toebbe “placed an SD card concealed within half a peanut butter sandwich at a pre-arranged ‘dead drop’ location,” according to the FBI.
According to the complaint, after retrieving the SD card, the undercover agent sent Toebbe a $20,000 cryptocurrency payment, and Toebbe responded with the card’s description key. The FBI stated that it “opened the provided SD card and provided the contents” to a US Navy subject matter expert, who confirmed the information was classified.
The couple are set to appear in federal court on 12 October.