A Navy nuclear engineer pleaded guilty Monday to trying to pass information about American nuclear-powered warships to someone he thought was a representative of a foreign government but who was actually an undercover FBI agent.
Jonathan Toebbe, 43, pleaded guilty in federal court in Martinsburg, West Virginia, to a single count of conspiracy to communicate restricted data. The sentencing range agreed to by lawyers calls for a potential punishment between roughly 12 years and 17 years in prison.
Toebbe and his wife, Diana, were arrested in October after prosecutors said he abused his access to top-secret government information and repeatedly sold details about the design elements and performance characteristics of Virginia-class submarines.
Toebbe acknowledged during the plea hearing to conspiring to pass classified information to a foreign government in exchange for money with the intent to “injure the United States.”
“Yes, your honor,” Toebbe said when asked if he considered himself guilty.
The FBI has said 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. That package was obtained by the FBI in December 2020 through its legal attaché office in the unspecified foreign country. That set off a monthslong undercover operation in which an agent posing as a representative of a foreign country made contact with Toebbe and agreed to pay thousands of dollars in cryptocurrency for the information Toebbe was offering.
Diana Toebbe was accused of serving as a lookout at several prearranged “dead-drop” locations at which her husband deposited memory cards containing government secrets, concealing them in objects such as a chewing gum wrapper and a peanut butter sandwich. She has pleaded not guilty and the case against her remains pending.
The country to which Jonathan Toebbe was looking to sell the information has not been identified in court documents and was not disclosed in court during the plea hearing Monday.
Toebbe, who as part of his job had a top-secret security clearance, agreed as part of the plea deal to help federal officials with locating all classified information in his possession, as well as the roughly $100,000 in cryptocurrency that was paid to him by the FBI.
FBI agents who searched the couple’s Annapolis, Maryland, home found a trash bag of shredded documents, thousands of dollars in cash, valid children’s passports and a “go-bag” containing a USB flash drive and latex gloves.