WASHINGTON — A Navy nuclear engineer with access to military secrets has been charged with trying to pass information about the design of American nuclear-powered submarines to someone he thought was a representative of a foreign government but who turned out to be an undercover FBI agent, the Justice Department said Sunday.
In a criminal complaint detailing espionage-related charges against Jonathan Toebbe, the government said he sold information for nearly the past year to a contact he believed represented a foreign power. That country was not named in the court documents.
Toebbe, 42, was arrested in West Virginia on Saturday, along with his wife, Diana, 45, after he had placed a removable memory card at a prearranged “dead drop” in the state, according to the Justice Department.
Federal prosecutors asked Monday that both Toebbes remain locked up as they press forward with charges. The detention memo was filed ahead of an expected appearance in federal court in West Virginia on Tuesday.
It was not immediately clear if either of the Toebbes had an attorney.
In the detention memo, prosecutors checked boxes indicating that they believe the Toebbes represent a risk to flee and to obstruct justice. They also checked boxes showing that the prosecution, under the Atomic Energy Act, involves an “offense for which the maximum sentence is life imprisonment or death.”
The Navy declined to comment Sunday.
The FBI says the scheme began in April 2020 when Jonathan Toebbe sent a package of Navy documents to a foreign government and wrote that he was interested in selling to that country operations manuals, performance reports and other sensitive information.
Authorities say he also provided instructions for how to conduct the furtive relationship, with a letter that said: “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.”
That package, which had a return address in Pittsburgh, was obtained by the FBI in December through its legal attache office in the unspecified foreign country. The court documents don’t explain how the FBI came to receive the package or from whom.
In any event, the FBI used Toebbe’s outreach as the launching pad for a monthslong undercover operation in which an agent posing as a representative of a foreign contact made contact with Toebbe and agreed to pay thousands of dollars in cryptocurrency for the information that Toebbe was offering.
After weeks of back and forth over email, the undercover agent in June sent Toebbe about $10,000 in cryptocurrency, describing it as a sign of good faith and trust, the FBI says.
Weeks later, federal agents watched as the Toebbes arrived at an agreed-upon location in West Virginia for the exchange, with Diana Toebbe appearing to serve as a lookout for her husband during a dead-drop operation for which the FBI paid $20,000.
The FBI recovered a blue memory card wrapped in plastic and placed between two slices of bread on a half of a peanut butter sandwich, court documents say. The records on the memory card included design elements and performance characteristics of Virginia-class submarine reactors.
The Justice Department describes those submarines as “cruise missile fast-attack submarines, which incorporate the latest in stealth, intelligence gathering, and weapons systems technology.”
The memory card also included a typed message that said, in part: “I hope your experts are very happy with the sample provided and I understand the importance of a small exchange to grow our trust.”
The FBI conducted similar dead-drop exchanges over the next several months, including one in August in eastern Virginia for which Toebbe was paid roughly $70,000. In that instance, prosecutors say, he concealed in a chewing gum package a memory card that contained schematic designs for the Virginia-class submarine.
The complaint alleges violations of the Atomic Energy Act, which restricts the disclosure of information related to atomic weapons or nuclear materials.
The Toebbes are expected to have their initial court appearances Tuesday in Martinsburg, West Virginia.
Jonathan Toebbe has worked for the U.S. government since 2012, holding a top-secret security clearance and specializing in naval nuclear propulsion, the FBI says. He has also been assigned to a government-owned laboratory in the Pittsburgh area that officials say works on nuclear power for the U.S. Navy.
No one answered at the Toebbe residence on Sunday afternoon in a waterside Annapolis community by the South River. An outside light was on above the door of their home, and a dog barked inside.
John Cooley, who lives across the street from the Toebbes, said he counted more than 30 FBI agents on his block on Saturday from about 2:30 p.m. until after dark. He said agents went inside the home.
Associated Press writers Brian Witte in Annapolis, Robert Burns in Washington and Adrian Sainz in Memphis contributed to this report.