Navy nuclear engineer tried to spy, FBI says


WASHINGTON – A US Navy nuclear engineer and his wife have been accused of trying to share some of the United States’ top secrets in submarine technology with another country, according to court documents unsealed on Sunday.

Engineer Jonathan Toebbe has been accused of attempting to sell information about the nuclear propulsion system of Virginia-class attack submarines – the technology at the heart of a recent deal that the United States and Britain have concluded with Australia.

While rivals like Russia and China have long sought details of the propulsion of U.S. submarines, based on details in court documents, some experts believed the unsolicited offer was aimed at a friendly country and not an opponent.

There is no allegation from the FBI or the Justice Department that the foreign country obtained classified information.

The FBI affidavit described the Toebbes as employing somewhat sophisticated encryption methods but extremely sloppy practices. They insisted on careful use of cryptocurrency and encrypted their messages, but were urged to post the information on sites where it could be easily observed.

Mr. Toebbe has worked for the military as a civilian since 2017. He was commissioned in the Navy and reached the rank of lieutenant before moving to the Navy Reserve, which he left in December 2020 – the month where the FBI started to contact him.

According to court documents, he has been working on naval nuclear propulsion since 2012, including technology designed to reduce noise and vibration from submarines, factors that can reveal their location. There aren’t many more details in the Navy’s public records. He worked on naval reactors in Arlington, Virginia from 2012 to 2014. He then studied at the Naval Reactor School in Pittsburgh before returning to Arlington to work on reactors again.

The classified material in question included designs that could be of use to many countries building submarines. In the deal with Australia, the United States and Britain would help the country deploy nuclear-powered submarines, equipped with nuclear propulsion systems that offer unlimited range and operate so quietly that they are difficult. to detect.

Nuclear propulsion is one of the information most closely held by the US Navy, as the reactors are fueled by highly enriched uranium, which can also be converted into bomb fuel for nuclear weapons. The construction of compact and safe naval reactors is also a difficult engineering task. Until the agreement with Australia, the United States had only shared the technology with Great Britain, starting in 1958.

According to court documents, the Toebbes investigation began in December, when the FBI obtained a package that had been sent to another country with operational manuals, technical details and an offer to establish a secret relationship. The package was intercepted in the other country’s courier system and sent to an FBI legal attache. The agency has such attached in 63 countries.

“Please forward this letter to your military intelligence agency,” read a note in the package. “I believe this information will be of great value to your nation. This is not a hoax. “

The package was received by the foreign country in April 2020, although the FBI did not have access to it until December. The reason for the delay was not clear. The documents do not say whether the country that received the package turned it over to the FBI or whether the office obtained it through a secret source.

The FBI followed the package’s instructions and entered into an encrypted conversation, in which the sender offered Navy secrets in exchange for $ 100,000 in cryptocurrency.

During a series of exchanges, the FBI persuaded the sender to leave information at a standstill in exchange for cryptocurrency payments. The FBI then observed Mr. Toebbe and his wife, Diana Toebbe, at the site of the fall in West Virginia.

With Ms Toebbe acting as a lookout, Mr Toebbe left an SD card hidden inside a half peanut butter sandwich in a plastic bag, according to court documents. After the undercover agent retrieved the sandwich, Mr. Toebbe received $ 20,000.

Officers then set up another dead drop in Pennsylvania and a third in Virginia, where they said Mr. Toebbe dropped off an SD card concealed in a packet of gum.

While working at the Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory, a little-known government research center in West Mifflin, Pa., Mr. Toebbe is said to have had access to documents he is accused of passing on to the undercover FBI officer.

Many details of the exchange were redacted in court documents, but there was a reference to scale drawings and maintenance details. The FBI cited a memo, the affidavit of which suggests was written by one of the Toebbes, saying the information “reflects decades of” lessons learned “from the US Navy that will help ensure security of your sailors “.

The secrets of submarines have been part of spy games for generations. Although the Cold War is long over, technology, if there is one, is more important than ever.

The ubiquity of imaging satellites and the proliferation of ship-killer missiles have led countries to favor ships that can travel undetected and strike suddenly.

Diesel powered submarines tend to be noisy and can only stay underwater for a few weeks at most; their nuclear equivalents can remain submerged for months. Australia agreed in 2016 to buy a fleet of diesel submarines from France, but with the project running behind schedule and going over budget, it tried to improve the deal to get nuclear-powered ships. When Paris refused to share its secrets, Australia turned to Britain and the United States.

The FBI and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service arrested Jonathan and Diana Toebbe on Saturday. They will appear in federal court in Martinsburg, W.Va., on Tuesday.

The Toebbes live in a middle class neighborhood in Annapolis, Maryland. Neighbors said a dozen black SUVs took to their streets shortly after 1:15 p.m. on Saturday. Agents poured in and knocked on the door of the Toebbes’ two-story house. Finally, around thirty agents were present.

Several of them spent hours rummaging through Toebbes’ Mini Cooper, removing its seats and other components. Officers also interrupted a neighbor who was having a birthday party across the street to ask questions about the couple.

Neighbors said officers stayed in the house until around 9 or 10 pm, apparently taking pictures; lightning could be seen through the windows.

Few of the neighbors wanted to officially talk about the family, but several said the Toebbes were distant, more likely to ignore the waves than to send them away.

Jerry LaFleur, who shares a garden fence with the couple, said he sometimes waved to Mr. Toebbe, but the only time they spoke was when Mr. LaFleur asked permission to cut the weeds on Mr. Toebbe’s fence side.

“He looked like a nice, ordinary guy, nothing that would make me think twice,” Mr. LaFleur said.

According to neighbors, the Toebbes have two children, who briefly returned home on Sunday to collect items. Ms. Toebbe teaches humanities at Key School, a private neighborhood school known for its progressive philosophy. The school said on Sunday it had been suspended indefinitely.

Julian E. Barnes reported from Washington, and Brenda Wintrode from Annapolis, Md. Adam goldman and Eric schmitt contributed to Washington reporting.

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