A U.S. Navy nuclear submarine engineer and his wife have been arrested for passing secrets to an undercover FBI agent that were hidden inside a peanut butter sandwich, a report noted on Sunday.
According to a criminal complaint filed by the Justice Department on Saturday, Jonathan Toebbe, 42, and his wife Diana, 45, were charged with attempting to sell secret information regarding U.S. Navy nuclear subs, the most sophisticated in the world, to a foreign operative who was actually working undercover. The complaint states that Toebbe sold information for most of the past year, the Daily Mail reported.
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The FBI says that Toebbe sent a sheaf of documents in April 2020 to a foreign government, writing that he wanted to sell classified information on nuclear reactors inside Virginia-class fast-attack subs, the Navy’s newest undersea platform. The foreign government was not named in reports, but officials with that government held onto the documents before eventually passing them to the U.S. in December 2020, following the election.
Toebbe and his wife, a teacher, were arrested in West Virginia on Saturday after he stashed a removable memory card at a “dead drop” site, a prearranged location, the Justice Department noted in the complaint.
The department said that Toebbe hid encrypted memory cards in a band-aid wrapper, a packet of chewing gum, and a peanut butter sandwich.
The government said that Toebbe was employed in the office of the Chief of Naval Operations, the branch’s top officer, for 15 months. Also, the Justice Department noted that he worked on nuclear propulsion for the Navy since 2012 — work that included top-secret technology that is designed to reduce noise and vibration signatures of submarines, which help conceal the vessels from enemy ships and subs.
In one message to the foreign government, Toebbe said he hoped officials could help him and his family leave the U.S. if he was ever discovered, noting “we have passports and cash set aside for this purpose.”
The FBI says that Toebbe gave the foreign government details on how to conduct the relationship, noting in a letter, “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.”
After Toebbe reached out, an undercover FBI agent posed as a representative of the foreign government and made an offer to pay thousands of dollars in cryptocurrency for the classified information being offered. According to emails, Tobbe was initially was hesitant but eventually became more trusting of the undercover agent because of the large amount of money he would be paid. He agreed to receive $100,000 in crypto; he had been paid $70,000 by the time of his arrest.
The FBI also made arrangements to “signal” Toebbe over the Memorial Day weekend but it isn’t clear how that worked.
The first crypto “good faith” payment of $10,000 came in June, according to court documents, and within weeks, FBI agents watched the Tobbes as they arrived at an agreed-upon location for a data drop, with Diana Tobbe appearing to act as a lookout for her husband.
In one message, Toebbe said the information he provided “reflects decades of U.S. Navy ‘lessons learned’ that will help keep your sailors safe.”
Only six countries operate nuclear-powered submarines: The U.S., the UK, Russia, China, India, and France.
Earlier this fall, the U.S. and France got into a diplomatic row after Washington and London undercut Paris in a sub deal to build nuclear submarines for Australia.
Committing espionage against the United States carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. The couple has been charged with violations of the Atomic Energy Act.