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Maryland man pleads guilty to trying to sell nuclear secrets to foreign government

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A Maryland man charged with attempting to sell nuclear secrets to a foreign government pleaded guilty to espionage on Monday.

Jonathan Toebbe, a nuclear engineer, pleaded not guilty in October and was detained pending trial. In Monday’s binding plea deal, Toebbe will be sentenced to between about 12 and a half and 17 and a half years in prison, and is required to turn over and provide access to all electronic devices, accounts and any other files he might have. He also consented to assisting federal officials with locating all classified information he possesses, as well as the money the undercover FBI agent gave him while the government gathered evidence.

Toebbe and his wife, Diana, a teacher, of Annapolis, were arrested on Oct. 9 after undercover FBI agents exchanged $100,000 in cryptocurrency for highly sensitive nuclear submarine secrets that were stored on memory cards hidden in gum wrappers, peanut butter sandwiches and Band-Aid wrappers, stashed at drop sites in West Virginia, Virginia and Pennsylvania. Though Diana Toebbe also faces charges, there were no updates on her next court appearance on Monday, and her husband’s deal does not resolve her case.

“From on or about April 1, 2020 through Oct. 9, 2021, in Jefferson County, W.Va., and elsewhere, I conspired with Diana Toebbe to transmit restricted data to a foreign nation in exchange for payment,” Jonathan Toebbe told Magistrate Judge Robert Trumble during a hearing on Monday afternoon in Martinsburg, W.Va.

Prosecutors laid out the facts supporting the guilty plea on Monday, starting with Jonathan Toebbe’s employment by the Department of the Navy. Toebbe, a Navy veteran who later became a civilian employee at the Washington Navy Yard, worked at Naval Reactors, which oversees the Navy’s nuclear propulsion program. Toebbe had an active special security clearance to the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy.

The government went on to break down Toebbe’s actions from April 2020 to October 2021, noting multiple times that there’s “a reflection of who was acting as a lookout for him” at multiple dead-drop locations.

The Toebbes have been kept in detention since the fall, as the Justice Department said they were flight risks.From details unveiled during a hearing this October, it appeared the Toebbes were prepared to leave the country if their activities were discovered, armed with cash, rubber gloves, a cryptocurrency wallet and their childrens’ passports.

Jonathan Toebbe waived his right to challenge his detention in the fall, whereas lawyers for Diana Toebbe asked for her release, which prompted a three-hour-long court session. New details were then unveiled about law enforcement’s extensive work to track down the couple and the Toebbes’ efforts to keep their activities concealed.

The unidentified foreign country contacted the U.S. in early December 2020 to share the letter the nation’s officials had received that April from someone using a common cryptography pseudonym who offered to sell details about U.S. nuclear subs. The letter came packaged with authentic and classified documents.

“Please have your experts examine the documents,” the letter said, according to the FBI. “I think they would agree that your country’s attempt to develop a [redacted] would be greatly aided.”

In October, defense attorneys for Diana Toebbe argued there was no evidence to suggest she had access to the nuclear information her husband had, the cryptocurrency or his discussions with the FBI agent, who he apparently thought was a foreign government. But the FBI and prosecutors maintained there was enough evidence to suggest she was involved with his plan to sell the classified information for a total of $5 million.

Josh Gerstein contributed to this report.

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