Husband and Wife Accused in Espionage Case That Started with a Message: 'This Is Not a Hoax'

November 26, 2009 The Virginia-class attack submarine Pre-Commissioning Unit New Mexico (SSN 779) undergoes Bravo sea trials in the Atlantic Ocean
November 26, 2009 The Virginia-class attack submarine Pre-Commissioning Unit New Mexico (SSN 779) undergoes Bravo sea trials in the Atlantic Ocean

HANDOUT/US NAVY/AFP via Getty Submarine

A nuclear engineer working for the U.S. Navy and his wife were arrested this weekend and charged in what federal prosecutors describe as an elaborate Nuclear Age espionage plot.

Jonathan and Diana Toebbe were taken into custody on Saturday, authorities say. They will make their initial court appearances on Tuesday.

Records do not list attorneys who could comment on their behalf.

Both Jonathan, 42, and Diana, 45, have been charged with conspiracy to communicate restricted data and communication of restricted data after nearly a year of what prosecutors allege was Jonathan — with Diana's help — sending information "concerning the design of nuclear-powered warships to a person they believed was a representative of a foreign power. In actuality, that person was an undercover FBI agent."

As legal filings lay out, the case began in April 2020, when Jonathan allegedly sent a package containing "U.S. Navy documents, a letter containing instructions, and an SD card containing specific instructions on how" to communicate with him.

"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," his letter read, prosecutors say.

But after the letter was instead forwarded to an FBI attaché, the agency began working undercover to communicate with Jonathan, using the encrypted information included in the package.

"We have a trusted friend in your country who has a gift for you to compensate for your efforts," an undercover FBI agent wrote in a message sent to Jonathan, according to prosecutors.

In response, he allegedly said he was "uncomfortable" with a face-to-face meeting but would accept $100,000 worth of cryptocurrency — and would, in return, send a link to download restricted government documents.

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The undercover operation continued for months, with the FBI even working with the unidentified foreign country to place a signal at a foreign government building in Washington, D.C., so that Jonathan would believe the conversations to be legitimate.

By June, to further the ruse, the FBI had wired him $10,000 in crytocurrency, as a sign of good faith and with assurances that an additional $20,000 would be wired once the documents were placed at a drop location in West Virginia, prosecutors said.

Later that month, and just three days after sending a message that he was "ready to move forward," Jonathan allegedly dropped documents at an agreed-upon location Jefferson County, West Virginia — and the FBI was watching.

The agency quickly identified him as a nuclear engineer living in Annapolis, Maryland, and working for the Navy.

He also had an active Top Secret Security Clearance through the Department of Defense and an active Q clearance from the Department of Energy.

According to the criminal complaint, Jonathan's wife was allegedly standing "approximately one meter away" from her husband during the dead drop and appeared to be acting as a lookout.

Once the couple left, the FBI found the SD card placed at the location by Jonathan, according to prosecutors.

The Justice Department said the card was "wrapped in plastic and placed between two slices of bread on a half of a peanut butter sandwich. The half sandwich was housed inside of a plastic bag."

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Prosecutors said the Navy ultimately determined that "multiple documents on the SD card contained restricted data," including about "militarily sensitive design elements, operating parameters, and performance characteristics of Virginia-class submarine reactors."

The FBI continued communicating with — and now monitoring — Jonathan in the weeks following the first dead drop, with Jonathan at one point allegedly seeking assurances that he would be helped out of the U.S. at short notice if needed.

"We have passports and cash set aside for this purpose," he wrote, per prosecutors.

Instead, last weekend, he and his wife were arrested in West Virginia.

"The complaint charges a plot to transmit information relating to the design of our nuclear submarines to a foreign nation," Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement. "The work of the FBI, Department of Justice prosecutors, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and the Department of Energy was critical in thwarting the plot charged in the complaint and taking this first step in bringing the perpetrators to justice."