According to startling, recently unsealed DOJ complaint, a USN engineer named Jonathan Toebbe and his wife, Diana Toebbe, attempted to pass secrets about America’s high-tech nuclear submarines to a foreign power. The plot was discovered and exposed by an undercover FBI Special Agent named Justin Van Tromp.
The DOJ, in a press statement on October 10, 2021, announced that the Toebbes “were arrested in Jefferson County, West Virginia, by the FBI and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) on Saturday, Oct. 9.”
The press statement alleges that “For almost a year, Jonathan Toebbe, 42, aided by his wife, Diana, 45, sold information known as Restricted Data concerning the design of nuclear-powered warships to a person they believed was a representative of a foreign power. In actuality, that person was an undercover FBI agent. The Toebbes have been charged in a criminal complaint alleging violations of the Atomic Energy Act.”
The Atomic Energy Act, the statute under which the DOJ is prosecuting the Toebbes, prohibits “individuals who have possession of~ access to, control over, or are entrusted with any document, writing, sketch, photograph, plan, model, instrument, appliance, note, or information involving or incorporating Restricted Data from communicating, transmitting, or disclosing it to any individual or person, or attempting or conspiring to do so, with the intent to injure the United States or to secure an advantage to any foreign nation.”
If Mr. and Ms. Toebbee did attempt to sell secrets about America’s nuclear submarines to a foreign power, it is quite likely that they violated the statute.
Mr. Toebbe is a nuclear engineer that worked on the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program as an employee of the Department of the Navy. His position and national security clearance gave him access to sensitive information referred to by the government as “Restricted Data,” which he and Ms. Toebbe allegedly attempted to sell to an unnamed foreign in exchange for tens of thousands of dollars in cryptocurrency. The Restricted Data Mr. and Ms. Toebbe allegedly attempted to sell concerned “the design of nuclear-powered warships.”
Just the News reports that “The case was aided last December when an FBI official received a package from a foreign official that had been sent to the foreign country containing U.S. Navy documents, a letter and instructions for how to conduct encrypted communications with the defendants, the unsealed charges show.”
Details of the mission to expose and arrest Mr. Toebbe read like a Cold War spy thriller. According to the DOJ’s press release:
On June 8, 2021, the undercover agent sent $10,000 in cryptocurrency to Jonathan Toebbe as “good faith” payment. Shortly afterwards, on June 26, Jonathan and Diana Toebbe traveled to a location in West Virginia. There, with Diana Toebbe acting as a lookout, Jonathan Toebbe placed an SD card concealed within half a peanut butter sandwich at a pre-arranged “dead drop” location. After retrieving the SD card, the undercover agent sent Jonathan Toebbe a $20,000 cryptocurrency payment. In return, Jonathan Toebbe emailed the undercover agent a decryption key for the SD Card. A review of the SD card revealed that it contained Restricted Data related to submarine nuclear reactors. On Aug. 28, Jonathan Toebbe made another “dead drop” of an SD card in eastern Virginia, this time concealing the card in a chewing gum package. After making a payment to Toebbe of $70,000 in cryptocurrency, the FBI received a decryption key for the card. It, too, contained Restricted Data related to submarine nuclear reactors. The FBI arrested Jonathan and Diana Toebbe on Oct. 9, after he placed yet another SD card at a pre-arranged “dead drop” at a second location in West Virginia.
This shocking espionage attempt comes at a time of heightened global tensions.
Chinese forces have been probing Taiwanese aerial defenses for months now, including a recent, four-day campaign of repeated aerial incursions of Taiwan’s air defense zone that involved nearly 140 Chinese warplanes. Additionally, it was recently announced that elite teams of US Marine Raiders and Army Special Forces troopers are stationed in Taiwan and have been training Taiwanese ground and maritime forces for over a year.
Meanwhile, jets flew off a Japanese aircraft carrier for the first time since World War II, France recalled its ambassadors to the United States and Australia over a US submarine-building deal with Australia, and allied naval forces recently participated in a series of multi-carrier naval exercises in the South China Sea.
While the FBI’s criminal complaint does not state which nation attempted to buy Restricted Data about America’s nuclear submarines, it is clear that all of America’s enemies have an interest in doing so, most of all China.
America’s Virginia-class SSNs outclass the Chinese Type-093Bs, which are more analogous to America’s Cold War-era Los Angeles-class attack subs. Leaping ahead in propulsion technology by buying Sensitive Data regarding crucially important propulsion technology would help China catch up with America’s “Silent Service.” Such an advance would be of tremendous importance in a future naval war between the two nations. China was described as a “rampant” thief of US weapon systems in the 2018 Assessment of America’s defense base.
However, other nations also have an interest in catching up to America’s submarine technology, including France and Russia, so it cannot be determined at this time which nation attempted to buy the data off the Toebbes.