Maryland Nuclear Engineer Pleads Guilty to Espionage-Related Offense
WASHINGTON – A Maryland man pleaded guilty today to conspiracy to communicate restricted data related to the design of nuclear-powered warships to a person he believed was a representative of a foreign nation.
Jonathan Toebbe, 43, of Annapolis, was arrested on Oct. 9, 2021, after he placed an SD card at a pre-arranged “dead drop” at a location in West Virginia. According to court documents, at the time of his arrest, Toebbe was an employee of the Department of the Navy who served as a nuclear engineer and was assigned to the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program, also known as Naval Reactors. He held an active national security clearance through the Department of Defense, giving him access to “Restricted Data” within the meaning of the Atomic Energy Act. Restricted Data concerns design, manufacture or utilization of atomic weapons, or production of Special Nuclear Material (SNM), or use of SNM in the production of energy – such as naval reactors. Toebbe worked with and had access to information concerning naval nuclear propulsion including information related to military sensitive design elements, operating parameters and performance characteristics of the reactors for nuclear powered warships.
“Among the secrets the U.S. government most zealously protects are those related to the design of its nuclear-powered warships,” said Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen of the Justice Department’s National Security Division. “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. The Department of Justice will vigilantly protect the American people and our nation’s security by investigating and prosecuting those who violate their Constitutional oath and abuse their positions for personal gain.”
“The agents and prosecutors handling this matter are to be commended for their efforts,” said U.S. Attorney William Ihlenfeld for the Northern District of West Virginia. “They are talented and tenacious, and their work in this case has helped to make our country safer.”
“There’s a message here for anyone who would sell out America’s secrets,” said Assistant Director Alan E. Kohler, Jr. of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division. “The FBI and its partners will use all our investigative techniques to bring you to justice.”
“The FBI is relentless in its efforts to uncover those who seek to do our nation harm by targeting our most valuable secrets,” said Special Agent in Charge Mike Nordwall of the FBI’s Pittsburgh Field Office. “This case is an example of the hard work and diligence of the FBI and our federal partners to neutralize and hold accountable those people who threaten our national security.”
“Today Jonathan Toebbe admitted that he violated federal law when he conspired with his wife to sell sensitive government information to a foreign power,” said U.S. Attorney Cindy Chung for the Western District of Pennsylvania. “My office will continue to work with our law enforcement partners to identify and hold accountable those who would pursue financial gain at the expense of their solemn duty to protect our country’s closely held secrets.”
“The overarching mission of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) is to prevent terrorism, reduce crime and protect secrets, with a very high priority on protecting vital information such as the design and operation of nuclear-powered warships,” said Special Agent in Charge Michelle Kramer of the NCIS Office of Special Projects. “It’s this kind of technology that provides the Department of the Navy with capabilities unmatched by any of America’s adversaries. NCIS remains committed to protecting that information to ensure the readiness of the US Navy and Marine Corps.”
According to his plea, in April 2020, Toebbe sent a package to a foreign government, listing a return address in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, containing a sample of Restricted Data and instructions for establishing a covert relationship to purchase additional Restricted Data. Toebbe began corresponding via encrypted email with an individual whom he believed to be a representative of the foreign government. The individual was really an undercover FBI agent. Toebbe continued this correspondence for several months, which led to an agreement to sell Restricted Data in exchange for thousands of dollars in cryptocurrency.
On June 8, 2021, the undercover agent sent $10,000 in cryptocurrency to Toebbe as “good faith” payment. Shortly afterwards, on June 26, Toebbe serviced a dead drop by placing an SD card, which was concealed within half a peanut butter sandwich and contained military sensitive design elements relating to submarine nuclear reactors, at a pre-arranged location. After retrieving the SD card, the undercover agent sent Toebbe a $20,000 cryptocurrency payment. In return, Toebbe emailed the undercover agent a decryption key for the SD Card. A review of the SD card revealed that it contained Restricted Data related to submarine nuclear reactors. On Aug. 28, Toebbe made another “dead drop” of an SD card in eastern Virginia, this time concealing the card in a chewing gum package. After making a payment to Toebbe of $70,000 in cryptocurrency, the FBI received a decryption key for the card. It, too, contained Restricted Data related to submarine nuclear reactors. The FBI arrested Toebbe and his wife on Oct. 9, after he placed yet another SD card at a pre-arranged “dead drop” at a second location in West Virginia.
Toebbe pleaded guilty to count one of the indictment charging him with conspiracy to communicate Restricted Data which carries a maximum statutory penalty of up to life in prison, a fine up to $100,000, and term of supervised release not more than five years. Pursuant to his plea agreement, Toebbe will serve a minimum of 151 months, or 12 and a half years, in federal prison. A federal district court judge will determine any sentence after considering the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.
The FBI and NCIS are investigating the case.
Trial Attorneys Matthew J. McKenzie and S. Derek Shugert of the National Security Division's Counterintelligence and Export Control Section, Assistant U.S. Attorneys Jarod J. Douglas and Lara Omps-Botteicher of the Northern District of West Virginia, and Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Jessica Lieber Smolar for the Western District of Pennsylvania are prosecuting the case.