A US Navy nuclear engineer and his wife have been charged with trying to pass top secret information about the design of nuclear-powered submarines to someone they thought was working for a foreign power, but was in fact an undercover FBI agent.
Jonathan Toebbe and his wife Diane allegedly tried to sell nuclear submarine design data, hidden in a peanut butter sandwich, to someone they thought represented another country in the FBI sting.
Toebbe, 42, was arrested 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 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.
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 memory card, along with potential secret information, 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 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. The foreign power was not named in the court documents.
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.”
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 an initial court appearance on Tuesday.