Navy engineer smuggled secrets, sought drinks with 'foreign spies'

Woke ‘submarine spies’ first offered secrets to unknown foreign power two YEARS ago and wanted to meet their operatives for DRINKS: Believed they were going to be ‘extracted’ from the US, court documents reveal

  • Jonathan Toebbe and his wife, Diana Toebbe, have both been charged with spying on the U.S. for an unidentified foreign government
  • Written communications between Jonathan and an undercover FBI agent allegedly show that the engineer collected secret data over several years 
  • He became so comfortable with the ‘foreign spies’ that he wanted to meet them for drinks, it is claimed.
  • Toebbe is also said to have expressed his gratitude at the ‘foreign agents’ for vowing to quickly extract him from the US if necessary
  • No further information on which country the engineer believed he was talking to has been disclosed  
  • The couple, who remain held without bail due to potential flight risk, could face either life in prison or a fine of $100,000 and five years of supervised release
  • Diana, a longtime private school teacher, has been indefinitely suspended
  • Her colleagues and former students are ‘shocked’ and ‘appalled’ by the crimes she has allegedly committed 

A Navy nuclear submarine engineer smuggled state secrets out page-by-page to sell to foreign spies, invited them to meet him for a drink, and thanked them for offering to ‘extract’ him from the US, court papers claim.   

Jonathan Toebbe, 42, and his wife, Diana Toebbe, 45, are accused of violating the Atomic Energy Act – which restricts the disclosure of information related to atomic weapons or nuclear materials. 

The couple, from Annapolis in Maryland, allegedly attempted to provide information relating to stealth technology for nuclear submarines to an unidentified foreign nation. 

They are said to have offered material on Virginia-class submarines to an unnamed foreign power in April 2020, with that country turning over the evidence to the US in December 2020, which subsequently pursued the couple using undercover FBI agents posing as foreign spies. 

The Department of Justice revealed that Jonathan Toebbe (right), the Navy submarine engineer who faces ‘espionage-related crimes’ alongside his wife, Diana Toebbe (left), smuggled classified military secrets for years and became so comfortable with the ‘foreign spies’ that he wanted to meet them for drinks

In a letter outlining what classified information who had obtained, Jonathan, who spent two years working on nuclear reactors in Arlington, Virginia, is said to have explained how he meticulously smuggled documents over the years.

‘This information was slowly and carefully collected over several years in the normal course of my job to avoid attracting attention and smuggled past security checkpoints a few pages at a time,’ he wrote.

‘I no longer have access to classified data so unfortunately cannot help you obtain other files. But I can answer your experts questions using my own knowledge, if we can establish a secure and confidential means of communication.’
He is also said to have suggested meeting his handler for a drink after their ‘mission was complete.

An email prosecutors say was sent by Jonathan Toebbe said: ‘Thank you for your partnership as well my friend. One day, when it is safe, perhaps two old friends will have a chance to stumble into each other at a cafe, share a bottle of wine and laugh over stories of their shared exploits. 

‘A fine thought, but I agree that our mutual need for security may make that impossible. Whether we meet or no[sic], I will always remember your bravery in serving your country and your commitment to helping me.’

And written communications – said to have been shared Jonathan and an undercover FBI agent posing as a foreign spy – show that the engineer and his wife were also prepared to be extracted to a safe country should their plot be exposed. 

‘I will be forever grateful for your help extracting me and my family,’ Jonathan is said to have written in an encrypted email documented in the criminal complaint.

‘I surmise the first step would be unannounced travel to a safe third country with plans to meet your colleagues. We have passports and cash set aside for this purpose. I pray such a drastic plan will never be needed, but you are right: it is a comfort to know you are ready and willing to aid us.’ 

The complaint also revealed that Jonathan had a longstanding relationship with the foreign entity, although the name of the country whose spies Jonathan allegedly thought he was communicating with has not been shared. 

Written communications between Jonathan and an undercover FBI agent posing as a foreign spy show that the engineer had collected the classified military information over several years

There is no suggestion that any of the material Toebbe is said to have stolen made its way into enemy hands. 

The Toebbes were arrested Saturday, and both charged with spying on the U.S. for an unidentified foreign government were ordered held without bail during a court appearance Tuesday after it was determined that they pose a ‘serious risk’ of flight.

They could face either life in prison or a fine of $100,000 and five years of supervised release. 

They are scheduled for a detention hearing on Friday at 11am and a preliminary examination into their case has been set for October 20, at 1pm.

Their public defender has not commented on the case. 

Jonathan Toebbe (left) and Diana Toebbe (right) were both charged with spying on the U.S. for an unidentified foreign government were ordered held without bail during a court appearance Tuesday after it was determined that they pose a ‘serious risk’ of flight

Diana, a humanities teacher at a private K-12 school in Annapolis, Maryland, has been placed on an indefinite suspension, a spokesperson confirmed to ABC News on Tuesday.

Matthew Nespole, head of Key School where Diana worked for the last 10 years, said the academic institution was ‘shocked and appalled’ to learn of the charges against the Toebbes.

‘Key School had no prior knowledge of their alleged criminal activities, nor is the School connected to the investigation in any way,’ Nespole said. ‘Key School supports the administration of justice by the FBI and NCIS, and will cooperate with the investigation if requested through our school’s legal counsel to do so.’ 

One of Diana’s former students, Craig Martien, – who collaborated with her on a yearbook and an after-school anthropology club – echoed the school leader’s claims, saying he too was shocked to learn of the news. 

‘She was someone who I really looked up to. I was totally blindsided,’ he said in a Wednesday interview on Good Morning America. 

Key School is now focusing on ‘minimizing disruptions for our students and supporting them emotionally’. 

Diana (right), a humanities teacher at a private K-12 school in Annapolis, Maryland, has been placed on an indefinite suspension. Her former student, Craig Martien (left), said he was ‘totally blindsided’ by the allegations against Diana

According to the criminal complaint, Jonathan sent a package of classified Navy documents to a foreign government in April 2020 and wrote that he was interested in selling information on Virginia-class nuclear submarine reactors.

The unidentified foreign government allegedly sat on the documents before turning them over to the US in December 2020, after the election.  

During a sting operation, an undercover FBI agent posing as a representative of the foreign government made contact with Jonathan and agreed to pay thousands of dollars in cryptocurrency for the information he was offering.  

Emails between the two show that at first Jonathan remained wary but that he came to trust the undercover agent due to the hefty amount he was going to be paid. It was agreed he would receive $100,000 in crypto and was paid $70,000 before he was caught. 

The FBI also arranged a ‘signal’ to Jonathan from the country’s embassy in Washington over the Memorial Day weekend. The papers do not describe how the FBI was able to arrange such a signal.

In June 2021, the FBI says, the undercover agent sent $10,000 in cryptocurrency to Jonathan, describing it as a sign of good faith and trust.

Weeks later, federal agents watched as the Toebbes arrived at an agreed-upon location in West Virginia for the exchange, with Diana appearing to serve as a lookout for her husband during a dead-drop operation for which the FBI paid $20,000, according to the complaint.

The FBI recovered a blue memory card wrapped in plastic and placed between two slices of bread on a peanut butter sandwich, court documents said.

Jonathan also hid encrypted memory cards in a chewing gum packet and Band-Aide wrapper at different drop-off locations.  

The FBI provided the contents of the memory card to a Navy subject matter expert who determined that the records included design elements and performance characteristics of Virginia-class submarine reactors, the Justice Department said.

The FBI conducted similar dead-drop exchanges over the next several months, including one in August in Virginia in which Jonathan was paid roughly $70,000 and concealed in a chewing gum package a memory card that contained schematic designs for the Virginia-class submarine, according to court documents.

One memory card 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.’

Many of the emails that were exchanged between Jonathan and the representative of the foreign country were transcribed in the court documents. He used two pseudonyms: Alice Hill and Bob Burns.

The leaked secrets contained ‘militarily sensitive design elements, operating parameters and performance characteristics of Virginia-class submarine reactors,’ according to a federal court affidavit

The messages suggest that Jonathan was offering the classified information to a power that already has nuclear submarines.

Jonathan states in one message that the information ‘reflects decades of U.S. Navy ‘lessons learned’ that will help keep your sailors safe.’

Only six countries currently operate nuclear-powered submarines — China, France, India, Russia, the UK and the US. The US and UK are set to provide Australia with the technology to deploy nuclear-powered submarines, as part of the first initiative under the new trilateral security partnership AUKUS.

Prior to the new deal, which ignited a diplomatic row between Washington and Paris, the US had only shared the technology of its submarines with Britain. Each of these underwater craft costs an estimated $3billion to build.

The country the Toebbes were allegedly trying to sell the nuclear secrets to is not clear and neither are their motivations. 

However, court documents suggest that the country was most likely an ally or neutral government because it cooperated with the FBI during the sting operation to expose the Toebbes. 

Some experts suggested that the Toebbes were trying to sell the information to France, but French officials have said they were not involved in the incident, according to the New York Times. 

The Toebbes are scheduled for a detention hearing on Friday at 11am and a preliminary examination into their case has been set for October 20, at 1pm

Jonathan has worked on naval nuclear propulsion since 2012, including secret technology devised to reduce the noise and vibration of submarines, factors that can give away their location. 

He first worked on naval reactors in Arlington, Virginia, from 2012 to 2014. He then was a student at naval reactor school in Pittsburgh before returning to Arlington to work on reactors again.

According to public Navy records, he worked for 15 months in the office of the chief of naval operations, the top officer in the military’s branch.

He started working in the military as a civilian in 2017. He was commissioned in the Navy and rose to the rank of lieutenant before moving to the Navy Rescue, which he left in December 2020 — the month the FBI established contact with him.     

Emails exchanged between Jonathan Toebbe and FBI agent posing as representative of unidentified country 

On December 26, 2020, the FBI initiated the first of several emails to ‘ALICE’ on ProtonMail. The FBI utilized a ProtonMail account utilizing the pseudo name ‘BOB.’ The email stated, ‘We received your letter. We want to work with you. It has been many months, so we need to know if you are still out there. Please respond to this message, then we will provide instructions on how to proceed.’ 

On February 10, 2021, ‘ALICE’ responded and stated, ‘Thank you for contacting me. I am still here. The covid disease has made it more difficult to find chances to check this email. Let us discuss how to proceed.’

On February 24, 2021, an FBI agent acting in an undercover capacity (‘the UC’) responded and stated, ‘We understand the delay and hope you are well. Our experts reviewed the information you provided. We would like to sample your [US. Navy Information — Specific Sections].’ We have a trusted friend in your country who has a gift for you to compensate for your efforts…

On March 5, 2021, ‘ALICE’ replied with the following. ‘ I am uncomfortable with this arrangement. Face to face meetings are very risky for me, as I am sure you understand. I propose exchanging gifts electronically, for mutual safety. I can upload documents to a secure cloud storage account, encrypted with the key I have provided you. You can send me a suitable gift in Monero cryptocurrency to an address I will provide. 100,000 usd should be enough to prove to me that you are not an unwelcome third party looking to make trouble for me. When I have confirmed receipt of your gift, I will provide you with the download link. We are both protected. I understand this is a large request. However, please remember I am risking my life for your benefit and I have taken the first step. Please help me trust you fully.’

On March 18, 2021, the UC posing as a representative of COUNTRY1 wrote, ‘We understand a face to face meeting would be uncomfortable. We suggest a neutral drop location. When you visit the location alone, you retrieve a g~fi and leave behind the sample we request. We hope to have a very long friendship that benefits mutually.’

On March 22, 2021, ‘ALICE’ replied. ‘I understand your proposal to start a dead drop. I am concerned that using a dead drop location your friend prepares makes me very vulnerable. If other interested parties are observing the location, I will be unable to detect them. I am not a professional, and do not have a team supporting me. I am also concerned that a physical gift would be very difficult to explain if I am questioned. For now, I must consider the possibility that you are not the person I hope you are. It would be very easy for the serial numbers of bills to be recorded. Tracking devices and other nasty surprises must be considered as well. I propose to mod~ your plan in the following ways:

1. I will place the sample you requested on a memory card and place it in a drop location of my choosing… . I am not a professional and I am sure that publicly available information on this subject is incomplete.

2. The samples will be encrypted using GnuPG symmetric encryption with a randomly generated passphrase.

3. I will tell you the location and how to find the card. I will also give you a Monero address. This form of gift protects both of us very well. I am very aware of the risks of blockchain analysis of BitCoin and other cryptocurrencies, and believe Monero gives both of us excellent deniability.

4. Once I confirm receipt of my gift, I will give you the passphrase.

Your friend and I will never go to the same drop location twice. I will give you a new Monero address each time. The decryption key will be different each time. No patterns for third parties to observe. The only electronic footprints will be Proton to Proton, so there is less risk of encrypted traffic being collected for future analysis by third parties. That part is not perfect. Perhaps as our friendship develops we will change addresses periodically?’

On April 1, 2021, the UC posing as a representative of COUNTRY1 responded to ‘ALICE’ and stated, ‘We understand your concern and appreciate the thoughtful plan… as a sign of good faith and trust we wish to pay you the equivalent of 10,000 USD immediately on Monero to address you provided.

Drop locations are safest and allow us to make exchanges without coming in contact and of course leave no electronic footprint… Your proposed method of memory card with encryption/passphrases is acceptable. For the small sample we requested you will receive another 20,000 USD. Once you confirm Monero address we will activate payment. Our next step will be information on the drop location we have selected. This method will build trust between usfor a larger transaction in future. Our experts are interested in the information you have but we insist on maintaining our discretion and security as a priority.’

On April 9, 2021, ‘ALICE’ wrote, ‘I am sorry to be so stubborn and untrusting, but I can not agree to go to a location of your choosing. I must consider the possibility that l am communicating with an adversary who has intercepted my first message and is attempting to expose me. Would not such an adversary wish me to go to a place of his choosing, knowing that an amateur will be unlikely to detect his surveillance? If you insist on physically delivering the package, then it must be a place of my choosing.

I ask you to consider the viability of an electronic dead drop. I can establish an encrypted online storage account without providing any identifying information and without provoking any suspicion…Another possibility occurs to me: is there some physical signal you can make that proves your identity to me? I could plan to visit Washington D.C. over the Memorial Day weekend. I would just be another tourist in the crowd. Perhaps you could fly a signal flag on your roof? Something easily observable from the street, but nothing to arouse an adversary’s suspicion?… ‘.

On April 23, 2021, the UC posing as a representative of COUNTRY1 emailed the following: ‘You do not need to apologize. We appreciate you being careful. That is much better than someone reckless. Your thoughtful plans indicate you are not amateur. This relationship requires mutual comfort. There is risk on both sides and we understand your need for safety assurance of who you are communicating with. As you suggest we can accommodate a signal in Washington D.C. over the Memorial Day weekend. We will set a signal from our main building observable from the street. It will bring you comfort with signals on display from the area inside our property that we control and not a [sic] adversary. If you agree please acknowledge. We will then provide more instruction about the signal. We hope this plan will continue to build the necessary trust and comfort of our identity.’

On May 5, 2021 ‘ALICE’ wrote, ‘I will make plans to be in the capitol [sic] over the Memorial Day weekend. It would be best to leave the signal visible for the entire holiday weekend so I can plan to pass by in the natural course of my tourist day. I may be on foot or passing by in a bus or car or bicycle, so please plan for something easy to spot.

On May 17, 2021, the UC posing as a representative of COUNTRY1 responded and said, in part, ‘We are happy to set a signal to bring you comfort and build necessary trust between us. The signal will be inside our main building from Saturday morning until Sunday evening Memorial Day weekend.’

During the weekend of May 29-30, 2021, the FBI conducted an operation in the Washington, D.C. area that involved placing a signal at a location associated with COUNTRY1 in an attempted effort to gain bona fides with ‘ALICE.’

On May 31, 2021, the FBI received confirmation via the ProtonMail from ‘ALICE’ that the signal was received. ‘ALICE’ also wrote that, ‘Now Jam comfortably telling you your assumption that Pittsburgh would be a convenient location for me is incorrect.. for now I can tell you I am located near Baltimore, Maryland. Please let me know when you are ready to proceed with our first exchange. Once you have dropped location details for me, I will give you the Monero address and prepare the sample you have requested.’ ‘ALICE’ went on to request clarity of the U.S. Navy information requested by the UC posing as a representative of COUNTRY1.

On June 4, 2021, the UC posing as a representative of COUNTRY1 requested the Monero address to provide ‘ALICE’ a payment of $10,000 USD as a sign of good faith and trust. The UC also informed ‘ALICE’ that new communication instructions would be provided at the exchange location.

On June 8, 2021, ‘ALICE’ wrote that, ‘For maximum security it is very important that you do not send Monero to the same address twice.’ ‘ALICE’ then provided the FBI with a payment address. ‘ALICE’ then went on to state, ‘I will place information you have requested~ encrypted, on a memory card along with the address for the second payment you offered in a plain text file. After I confirm the second payment I will provide you with the decryption passphrase using the new communication method. I am also excited to continue our relationship…’

On June 10, 2021, the FBI paid ‘ALICE’ approximately $10,000 USD in Monero cryptocurrency.

On June 17, 2021, ‘ALICE’ thanked the FBI for the first payment and stated that he/she was ‘eagerly waiting for your instructions.’

On June 18, 2021, the UC posing as a representative of COUNTRY1 emailed ‘ALICE’ to provide detailed instructions on servicing a dead drop location in Jefferson County, West Virginia to occur on June 26, 2021.

The UC discussed instructions regarding the next payment to ‘ALICE’ as well as additional assurance that ‘ALICE’ would be paid $20,000 upon the sample verification and authenticity of the information provided at the drop location.

On June 23, 2021, ‘ALICE’ sent the FBI a confirmation email stating, ‘I understand your instructions and am ready to move forward.’

On June 26, 2021, at approximately 10.41 a.m., the FBI observed Jonathan Toebbe physically service a dead drop location in Jefferson County, West Virginia. Records show that Jonathan Toebbe is a government employee working as a nuclear engineer for the United States Navy and holds an active Top Secret Security Clearance through the United States Department of Defense and an active Q clearance from the United States Department of Energy.

How the US Navy’s deadly Virginia-class submarine stacks up

Submarines are quiet, deadly and expensive. Boats like those in the Virginia class, which is a U.S. attack submarine, can cost $3.4 billion and take up to seven years to build. 

An attack submarine, also called a hunter-killer, is a submarine specifically designed to attack and sink other submarines, surface naval warships and sometimes merchant ships.  

Virginia-class submarines can move 25+ knots. These boats are among the quietest and are equipped with high-end sensors, giving the US Navy a degree of acoustic superiority in the undersea battlespace.

They are also equipped with 12 vertical missile launch tubes and four 533mm torpedo tubes. They can launch 65 missiles and torpedos, including 16 Tomahawk cruise missiles (SLCM), in a single salvo. 

The Virginia-class submarine can strike missiles up to 550-600 mph and its costs is $3.5 billion per unit

Tomahawk cruise missiles, which cost $1.8 million per unit, are a precision weapon that launches from ships and submarines and can strike targets precisely from 1,000 miles away, even in heavily defended airspace. 

There is also capacity for up to 26 MK 48 MOD 6 heavyweight torpedoes ($2.5 million per unit), and Harpoon anti-ship missiles ($1.4 million per unit) to be fired from the 21 inches torpedo tubes. 

MK 60 CAPTOR mines can also be deployed from the subs. 

Virginia-class submarines can stay submerged for up to three months at a time. 

Additionally, these subs can also be used to deploy unmanned undersea vehicles (UUV).  UUVs have been used since the 1970s for mine countermeasures work and more recently environmental monitoring, including finding out open-water temperatures.

They have unlimited range, and the reactor core, which uses highly-enriched uranium, does not require refueling for the life of the ship, which is more than three decades

The most recent types of Virginia-class submarines (Block V) are one of the largest submarines to ever be built, with the length increased from 377 feet to 460 feet, and with greater displacement from 7,800 tons to 10,200 tons. 

As a result, the Block V versions of the Virginia-class are the second-largest US submarines produced behind only the Ohio-class.

Virginia-class submarines are designed for the future as they are expected to be acquired through 2043 and expected to remain in service until at least 2060, perhaps even into the 2070s.  

To date, 19 of the planned US 66 Virginia-class attack submarines have been completed since its launch in December 2019, while 11 more are now under construction. They can fit up to 135 people (15 officers; 120 enlisted).

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