As a Navy nuclear engineer, Jonathan Toebbe was entrusted with some of the nation’s most closely guarded secrets. But now the Annapolis resident will likely spend at least a dozen years behind bars after admitting he tried to sell key technical information about U.S. submarines to a foreign country.
In a federal courtroom in Martinsburg, West Virginia, Toebbe said, “Guilty, your honor” when Magistrate Judge Robert Trumble asked for his plea on a charge of conspiracy to communicate restricted data. The charge carries the possibility of life in prison but a plea deal with federal prosecutors means Toebbe, 43, will probably serve 12 to 17½ years behind bars without the possibility of parole.
The case attracted widespread attention after the joint arrest of Toebbe and his wife, Diana, following an elaborate FBI sting operation. As part of the agreement, he acknowledged in court that he conspired with her in his abortive effort to sell U.S. military secrets for money.
The case against Mrs. Toebbe is still pending. It was unclear if she has agreed to cooperate with prosecutors as well.
During the hourlong hearing, Judge Trumble repeatedly asked the defendant if he understood the plea agreement and wasn’t pressured to accept it.
“Yes,” Toebbe said.
Before his arrest in October 2021, he had been assigned to the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program, also known as Naval Reactors. A Department of Defense security clearance gave Toebbe access to the top-secret information known as “Restrictive Data,” according to the Department of Justice.
The plot began April 1, 2020, when he sent a package to a foreign government, identified in court documents as “Country 1.” It contained a sample of the sensitive data and instructions for establishing a covert relationship in order to receive additional secrets. About eight months later, officials with the government handed the package to an FBI attache working at the U.S. Embassy there, according to the criminal complaint filed against Toebbe.
The FBI set up a sting operation with an undercover agent acting as a representative of the foreign country interested in more U.S. nuclear secrets. The agent sent the defendant $10,000 in cryptocurrency as a “good faith” payment.
For more than three months, Toebbe — with his wife allegedly acting as a lookout — left top-secret information about the Navy’s nuclear power program at dead drop sites in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and in eastern Virginia. In one case, a data card containing the information was left inside a half-eaten peanut butter sandwich. At another site, the data card was sealed inside a Band-Aid wrapper left in a clear plastic bag, according to court documents.
FBI agents were watching them and recording the couple’s actions at each of the drop sites, authorities said.
At his court hearing on Monday, federal prosecutors said Toebbe eventually offered to provide County 1 with 51 electronic caches of nuclear reactor information in exchange for $5 million in cryptocurrency.
As part of his plea deal, Toebbe said he would help the federal government retrieve all sensitive information accumulated during his aborted espionage career as well as return the $70,000 in cryptocurrency federal agents provided him during the sting.
His sentencing hearing is still pending. Toebbe was turned over to the U.S. Marshals Service after entering his plea.