US navy engineer charged after hiding secret documents in peanut butter sandwich

Information on the design of nuclear submarines was found in an SD card. Credit: AP

A US navy nuclear engineer with access to military secrets has been charged with trying to pass information about the design of American nuclear-powered submarines.

Jonathan Toebbe thought he was selling the details to a representative of a foreign government but it turned out to be an undercover FBI agent, the Justice Department said.

The FBI recovered a blue SD card containing naval information wrapped in plastic and placed between two slices of bread on a peanut butter sandwich.

In a criminal complaint detailing espionage-related charges against Toebbe, the government said he sold information for the past year to a contact he believed represented a foreign power.

That country was not named in the court documents.

Toebbe, 42, was arrested in West Virginia on Saturday along with his 45-year-old wife Diana after he had placed a removable memory card at a pre-arranged “dead drop” in Jefferson County, according to the Justice Department.

The FBI says the scheme began in April 2020 when Jonathan Toebbe sent a package of navy documents to a foreign government and said he was interested in selling operations manuals, performance reports and other sensitive information.

The residence of Jonathan and Diana Toebbe in Annapolis, Maryland Credit: Brian Witte/AP

Authorities say he also provided instructions for how to conduct the furtive relationship, with a letter that said: “I apologise 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.”

The FBI’s legal office in the foreign country received the package, which had a return address of Pittsburgh, last December.

That led to a months-long undercover operation in which an agent posing as a representative of the foreign government offered to pay thousands of dollars in cryptocurrency for the information Toebbe was offering.

In June, the FBI says, the undercover agent sent $10,000 (£7,343) in cryptocurrency to Toebbe, describing it as a sign of good faith and trust.

The following week, FBI agents watched as the Toebbes arrived at an agreed-upon location in West Virginia for the exchange, with Diana Toebbe appearing to serve as a lookout for her husband during the dead-drop operation, according to the complaint.

The FBI paid Toebbe $20,000 (£14,686) for the transaction and provided the contents of the SD card from the sandwich 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.

Those submarines are sophisticated, nuclear-powered “cruise missile fast-attack submarines”, according to the complaint.

The complaint said the SD card also 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.”

The FBI conducted similar dead-drop exchanges over the next several months, including an August one in Virginia in which Toebbe was paid $70,000 (£51,400) and concealed an SD card in a chewing gum package.

The complaint alleges violations of the Atomic Energy Act, which restricts the disclosure of information related to atomic weapons or nuclear materials.

The Toebbes are expected to have their initial court appearances on Tuesday in Martinsburg, West Virginia.

Jonathan Toebbe has worked for the US government since 2012, holding a top-secret security clearance and specialising in naval nuclear propulsion, the FBI says.

He has also been assigned to a laboratory in the Pittsburgh area that officials say works on nuclear power for the US navy.