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Navy nuclear engineer and wife arrested for trying to sell submarine secrets to foreign power

A Maryland-based Navy nuclear engineer and his wife have been arrested on charges of selling secret information about the design of nuclear power warships to someone they thought was a foreign power but was actually an undercover FBI agent. 

The Justice Department claims Jonathan Toebbe, through his Pentagon-issued national security clearance, had access to restricted data about naval nuclear technology and used that access to send a package to an unnamed foreign government on April 1, 2020. 

After that, the affidavit alleged he began corresponding with someone he believed to be an agent of another country, but who was an undercover FBI agent. The FBI did not disclose in the complaint how it obtained the package sent to the unnamed country or the name of the country. 

Toebbe, cautious that he may have been communicating with someone other than a representative of the unnamed country, asked the contact to place a sign within the embassy's property in Washington, D.C., to prove their credentials, the complaint said. Toebbe said he would travel to Washington over Memorial Day weekend of this year to look for the signal. 

"The signal will be inside our main building from Saturday morning until Sunday evening Memorial Day weekend," the FBI wrote to Toebbe. The FBI conducted an operation "that involved placing a signal at a location associated with" the unnamed country, according to the complaint. 

Court documents claim the Navy engineer then agreed to sell restricted data to the undercover agent for $10,000 in cryptocurrency. 

Toebbe and his wife, Diana, then allegedly went to West Virginia, where the Navy engineer placed a memory card inside half a peanut butter sandwich, with his wife on the lookout. According to the Justice Department, the card contained restricted data about submarine nuclear reactors.

The engineer continued with more such "dead drops," including leaving memory cards inside a sealed bandaid wrapper and a chewing gum package, the complaint said. 

"This information was slowly and carefully collected over several years in the normal course of my job to avoid attracting attention and smuggled past security checkpoints a few pages at a time," Toebbe allegedly wrote. 

In another message, Toebbe acknowledged that he may have to flee the country and asked for help extracting him and his family, the complaint said. "We have passports and cash set aside for this purpose," he allegedly wrote. 

Attorney General Merrick Garland said the complaint "charges a plot to transmit information relating to the design of our nuclear submarines to a foreign nation."

"The work of the FBI, Department of Justice prosecutors, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and the Department of Energy was critical in thwarting the plot charged in the complaint and taking this first step in bringing the perpetrators to justice," Garland said. 

Toebbe and his wife are set to appear in federal court Tuesday morning. 

Catherine Herridge contributed to this report.

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