(Trends Wide) — Following a year-long operation by undercover FBI agents, a Maryland couple was arrested and charged with attempting to sell US nuclear secrets to another country in exchange for cryptocurrencies.
US Navy nuclear engineer Jonathan Toebbe, who had a top-secret security clearance, and his wife Diana were arrested Saturday in West Virginia by the FBI and the Naval Criminal Investigation Service after the couple he allegedly sold information on the design of US nuclear-powered warships “to a person who they believed was a representative of a foreign power but who was actually an undercover FBI agent,” according to a statement from the Justice Department.
The Washington Post newspaper reported for the first time on the alleged espionage plan.
The Justice Department said Toebbe had access to information on naval nuclear propulsion and sensitive military design elements, including “operating parameters and performance characteristics of reactors for nuclear-powered warships.”
An FBI agent in a criminal complaint justifying the arrest alleges that Toebbe first sent a package to a foreign government in April 2020 offering to sell the nuclear secrets, and an undercover FBI agent responded several months later through a program. of encrypted e-mail and corresponded with him. The broker worked to gain Toebbe’s trust before he allegedly agreed to sell the information for thousands of dollars in crypto, according to the complaint.
According to the complaint, the FBI “conducted an operation in the Washington, DC area, which involved placing a sign at a location associated with (the foreign government) in an attempt to gain good faith with ‘ALICE,'” the name that Toebbe used as aliases when writing emails.
During what Toebbe believed was a “stalemate,” or a hiding place that spies use to secretly pass information, the FBI said it arrested Jonathan and Diana on Saturday after Jonathan “put in another SD card” with classified information. at a pre-arranged location in West Virginia. The couple have been charged with violations of the Atomic Energy Act, which prohibits anyone with access to classified information from sharing that information. The complaint states that the Toebbe attempted “to communicate, transmit and reveal the same thing to another person with the intention of harming the United States and securing an advantage for a foreign nation.”
It is unclear if the couple have yet hired a lawyer.
In a confidence-building move during the extensive correspondence, the FBI managed to send a signal to Toebbe from a building that houses the country’s anonymous diplomats.
After gaining Toebbe’s trust, the agent tried to convince Toebbe to meet up in person, but Toebbe was worried about getting caught. The agent suggested using a deadlock at a location of his choice. In March 2021, Toebbe reportedly wrote: “I am concerned that using a dead end location that your friend prepares will make me very vulnerable. If other stakeholders are watching the location, I will not be able to detect them.”
Toebbe also said he was concerned about receiving cash payments, because serial numbers can be traced, and he is concerned that “tracking devices and other nasty surprises should also be considered,” according to the FBI criminal complaint.
In April 2021, Toebbe allegedly wrote, “Is there any physical sign you can make that prove your identity to me? I could plan to visit Washington DC on Memorial Day weekend. I would just be another tourist in the crowd. Maybe you Could you hoist a signal flag on your roof? Something easily observable from the street, but nothing that arouses the suspicion of an adversary (sic)? “
The undercover agent responded: “We will establish a signal from our main building that can be seen from the street. It will provide you comfort with a signal on display from the area within our property that we control and not an adversary. [sic]. If you agree, please confirm “.
Instead, Toebbe allegedly suggested using the decentralized cryptocurrency Monero because “it gives us both excellent deniability.” In an email cited in the lawsuit, Toebbe allegedly said that he would hand over an SD card containing several hundred pages of technical data. Once he confirmed receipt of the cryptocurrency, Toebbe allegedly wrote, “I’ll give you the password.”
Toebbe also allegedly told the agent that he would never use “the same delivery location twice. I will give you a new Monero address each time. The decryption key will be different each time. There are no patterns that third parties can observe. The only electronic fingerprints. It 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. Maybe as our friendship develops we will change direction periodically? “
In June 2021, Toebbe and his wife traveled to West Virginia, where the FBI said Toebbe “placed a hidden SD card inside half a peanut butter sandwich at a preset location.”
After recovering the SD card, the undercover agent sent Toebbe a cryptocurrency payment of $ 20,000 and Toebbe responded with the card’s description key, according to the complaint. The FBI said it “opened the provided SD card and provided the contents” to a subject matter expert from the US Navy, who confirmed that he had classified information.
A correspondence in progress
The FBI said Toebbe allegedly maintained the relationship with the undercover agent, making another stalemate in eastern Virginia in August 2021, where the FBI had him under surveillance as he left his home in Annapolis, Maryland, and headed for the dead drop.
The complaint stated that “the FBI observed that JONATHAN TOEBBE was serving in a stalemate in eastern Virginia. The FBI observed that JONATHAN TOEBBE placed an item in the container and removed a written message placed in the container by the FBI.”
“Subsequently, the FBI opened the SD card and provided the contents to the US Navy subject matter expert. The US Navy subject matter expert determined that several documents on the SD card contained restricted data. The document contained schematic designs for the Virginia-class submarine. Virginia-class submarines are fast attack submarines with nuclear-powered cruise missiles, incorporating the latest in stealth technology, intelligence gathering and weapons systems, “it alleges the criminal complaint.
In another exchange listed in the complaint, Toebbe explained how he obtained all the classified information, saying, “I was extremely careful to collect the files I possess slowly and naturally in my work routine, so that no one would suspect my plan. We received training on Warning signs for insider threats. We made sure not to show a single one. I don’t think any of my former colleagues will suspect me, if there’s a future investigation. “
He also said: “I have considered the possible need to leave on short notice. If that were necessary, I will be eternally grateful for your help in getting me and my family out. I suppose the first step would be to travel unannounced to a safe third country with plans to meet with his colleagues. We have passports and cash reserved for this purpose. ” He said he hoped such a move was never necessary.
Toebbe said he hoped to one day meet and have a few drinks with his foreign handler, and unknowingly wrote to the FBI agent: “Thank you for your partnership too, my friend. One day when it’s safe, maybe two old friends will have a chance. of meeting in a cafe, sharing a bottle of wine, and laughing at the stories of their shared exploits. A good thought, but I agree that our mutual need for security can make that impossible. Whether we meet or not I will always remember your courage in serving your country and your commitment to helping me. “