WASHINGTON (AP) — A Navy nuclear engineer pleaded guilty Monday to passing 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 last 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 that he conspired with his wife 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.
Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen, the Justice Department’s top national security official, said information about nuclear-powered submarines is among the U.S. government’s most closely held secrets.
“The defendant was entrusted with some of those secrets and instead of guarding them, he betrayed the trust placed in him and conspired to sell them to another country for personal profit,” Olsen said in a statement.
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. He included in the package, which had a Pittsburgh return address, instructions to his supposed contact for how to establish a covert relationship with him, prosecutors said.
That package was obtained by the FBI last December 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, ultimately paying $100,000 in cryptocurrency in exchange for the information Toebbe was offering.
Diana Toebbe is accused of serving as a lookout at several prearranged “dead-drop” locations at which her husband left behind memory cards containing government secrets — devices concealed 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 couple was arrested in West Virginia on Oct. 9 after he placed a memory card at a dead-drop location.
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 held a top-secret security clearance through the Defense Department, agreed as part of the plea deal to help federal officials with locating and retrieving all classified information in his possession, as well as the roughly $100,000 in cryptocurrency 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, according to court testimony last year.