A Navy nuclear engineer and his wife have been arrested on spying-related charges after they were caught passing highly classified nuclear submarine information to someone they thought was a foreign official. It was part of a major sting operation in which it turns out the 'foreign buyer' of the classified material was an undercover FBI agent. The relationship had gone on for a year.
The Annapolis, Maryland-based couple, identified as 42-year old Jonathan Toebbe and his 45-year old wife Diana had been passing secret "design elements and performance characteristics of Virginia-class submarine reactors," according to a Justice Department statement. Toebbe had worked for naval labs working on naval nuclear propulsion since 2012 and held a top secret security clearance.
The foreign country Toebbe had initially reached out has not been named by the DOJ, with the precise way that the FBI was tipped off undisclosed. The AP notes that Toebbe had "set the probe in motion by sending a package in April 2020 to a foreign government, with a sample of restricted data and an offer to sell them more, according to the statement," but that later "The package’s contents were obtained in December by the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s attache in the foreign country, according to the government’s criminal complaint."
This suggests that officials in the unnamed foreign country may have notified the FBI themselves, meaning it was possibly a US-allied country (it remains that allies spy on each other all the time - Israel's Jonathan Pollard being a prime recent historical example). Alternately, there's the scenario of a US spy asset in the foreign country catching wind of the scheme, and notifying the US side.
The DOJ statement indicates that "The affidavit also alleges that, thereafter, Toebbe began corresponding via encrypted email with an individual whom he believed to be a representative of the foreign government," but "The individual was really an undercover FBI agent."
After a series of messages to build trust, including an initial $10,000 in crypto transferred to Toebbe, an initial "drop" was made in the early part of last summer, described as follows:
The following week, FBI agents watched as the Toebbes arrived at an agreed-upon location in West Virginia for the exchange, with Diana Toebbe appearing to serve as a lookout for her husband during the dead-drop operation, according to the complaint. The FBI recovered a blue SD card wrapped in plastic and placed between two slices of bread on a peanut butter sandwich, the complaint says.
And further, based on details in the DOJ statement:
The SD card also 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."
The FBI conducted similar dead-drop exchanges over the next several months, including an August one in Virginia in which Toebbe was paid $70,000 and concealed an SD card in a chewing gum package, the complaint says.
DOJ: “For almost a year, Jonathan Toebbe, aided by his wife, Diana, sold info known as Restricted Data concerning the design of nuclear-powered warships to a person they believed was a representative of a foreign power. In actuality, that person was an undercover FBI agent.” pic.twitter.com/gXAxlHDgoE— Jerry Dunleavy (@JerryDunleavy) October 10, 2021
So it appears the couple's acts of espionage were motivated at least in part by money. The FBI sting operation involved paying the couple some $100,000 in total over a period of months as the government built the case.
Toebbe faces multiple counts and life in prison, along with his wife (though likely facing lesser charges). It's a rare case and arrest where the spies were caught red-handed in the act, with the last most high-profile similar instance being Robert Hanssen, who was arrested in a Vienna, Virginia in 2001 after being revealed as a double agent high up in the FBI. He had been passing state secrets to Russian intelligence services off and on from 1976 to 2001.