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Ex-US Navy engineer accused of trying to sell nuclear submarine secrets pleads guilty

The Virginia-class, nuclear-powered, fast-attack submarine, USS North Dakota (SSN 784), transit the Thames River as they pull into their homeport on Naval Submarine Base New London in Groton, Conn. in Jan. 2019.

US Navy photo by Cmdr. Jason M. Geddes

  • A former US Navy engineer pleaded guilty Monday to conspiring to sell submarine secrets.
  • Jonathan Toebbe and his wife were arrested last October.
  • Toebbe, with his wife as lookout, allegedly dead dropped memory cards with secret information in exchange for money.

A former US Navy nuclear engineer accused of trying to sell sensitive information about American nuclear-powered submarines to an unidentified foreign government pleaded guilty Monday, a government lawyer said, according to multiple reports.

In October, Jonathan Toebbe and his wife, Diana, were arrested and charged with one count of “conspiracy to communicate restricted data” and two counts of “communication of restricted data.”

These booking photos released Oct. 9, 2021, by the West Virginia Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority show Jonathan Toebbe and his wife, Diana Toebbe.These booking photos released Oct. 9, 2021, by the West Virginia Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority show Jonathan Toebbe and his wife, Diana Toebbe.

West Virginia Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority via AP

The arrest in West Virginia followed a year-long sting operation by the FBI. The pair have been in custody since their October 9 arrest.

Under the conditions of his plea deal, Toebbe is expected to face 12.5 to 17 years in prison. He will also assist authorities in finding restricted information and data he obtained, as well as money given to him by the FBI as part of the sting operation. The FBI is still locating $100,000.

Toebbe will be sentenced at a later court hearing. Toebbe’s wife has pleaded not guilty to the charges, Reuters reported, and she will remain in jail pending trial.

Toebbe attempted to sell secrets of the US Navy’s nuclear-powered submarines to an unidentified foreign country, the Justice Department said previously. He actually ended up communicating with an undercover FBI agent.

Toebbe released information to the undercover agent in a series of “dead drops,” situations in which information is hidden and exchanged without meeting in person.

During these drops, Toebbe hid memory cards with sensitive information in various random objects, including in a peanut butter sandwich, a package of chewing gum, and an adhesive bandage wrapper, according to the Department of Justice.

Prosecutors allege Diana Toebbe acted as a lookout during some of these dead drops, but her husband claims she did not know what was happening.  

Through his national security clearance, Toebbe had access to restricted data, including sensitive information about “military sensitive design elements, operating parameters, and performance characteristics of reactors for nuclear powered warships,” the Justice Department said.

An FBI agent testified that at one point during the operation, Toebbe asked for $5 million in cryptocurrency in exchange for sensitive information.

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