Stranger than fiction

FBI sting nets couple who hid atomic secrets in peanut butter sandwich

US navy engineer charged with trying to sell sensitive nuclear submarine data

A navy engineer and his wife have been charged with attempting to smuggle top-secret information about US submarines to another country inside a peanut butter sandwich.

Court documents have revealed that Jonathan and Diana Toebbe are accused of attempting to sell information related to the nuclear propulsion system of Virginia-class attack submarines. According to the The New York Times (NYT), the system is “at the heart of a recent deal that the US and Britain struck with Australia”.

“Rivals like Russia and China have long sought details of US submarine propulsion,” the paper added. But “based on the details in the court documents, some experts thought the unsolicited offer could have been aimed at a friendly country, not an adversary”.

Jonathan Toebbe, who “held a top-secret security clearance”, was arrested alongside his wife in West Virginia by the FBI and Naval Criminal Investigative Service on Saturday, CNN said. Both have been charged under the Atomic Energy Act.  

The couple were apprehended while attempting to share information with a person “they believed was a representative of a foreign power” but was actually an FBI agent, the Department of Justice said.

According to The Guardian, the attempt to sell information “began in April 2020” when Toebbe “sent a package of navy documents to a foreign government” with a message stating that he was “interested in selling operations manuals, performance reports and other sensitive information”.

Enclosed in the package was a note that read: “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 office in the foreign country received the package, which had a return address of Pittsburgh, last December”, the paper added. This sparked a “months-long undercover operation”. 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 this year, the couple “travelled to West Virginia to drop off the data” and with Diana “acting as a lookout”, Jonathan “placed an SD card concealed within half a peanut butter sandwich”, the court documents said.

After an FBI agent collected the card, “they sent payment and received a decryption key to access” what was found to be “restricted data ‘related to submarine nuclear reactors’”, the BBC reported. The couple “then performed a second so-called dead drop – this time hidden inside a chewing gum packet – in August, with yet more secret data on it”.

Information released by the FBI shows that Toebbe deployed “sophisticated encryption methods but extremely sloppy practices” while communicating with what he believed to be a foreign power, the NYT said, adding that he was “lured into depositing the information, usually on small digital cards, at sites where they could be easily observed”.

“Nuclear propulsion is among the most closely held information by the US Navy,” the paper added, in part because the reactors are fuelled by highly enriched uranium, which can also be converted to bomb fuel for nuclear weapons”. 

The couple are due to appear in federal court tomorrow.

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