The crazy story of the guy trying to sell US nuclear secrets

(AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)

According to the findings of a federal investigation, we have allegedly found another traitor in our midst, though perhaps not the most clever one we’ve ever come across. A United States Navy nuclear engineer who had long worked on the Navy’s nuclear submarine propulsion program was arrested on Saturday for repeatedly “Passing Restricted Data” in violation of the Atomic Energy Act, presumably giving the information to an adversarial government. Jonathan Toebble was arrested, along with his wife, who was described as being a “witting assistant.” That’s an extremely serious charge, but the details of how the story unfolded and the methods Toebble tried to use make the entire saga simply bizarre. (New York Post)

A Navy nuclear engineer and his wife from Maryland were busted for trying to sell confidential information about US nuclear-powered submarines to a foreign country, using memory cards hidden inside a peanut butter sandwich and a Band-Aid wrapper to transmit the secrets, according to court documents.

Jonathan Toebbe, who worked at the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program and had a top-secret security clearance, and his wife, Diana, were busted Saturday in Jefferson County, W.Va., accused by the FBI for violating the Atomic Energy Act, the Justice Department said on Sunday.

Toebbe, 42, “has passed, and continues to pass, Restricted Data as defined by the Atomic Energy Act … with the witting assistance of his spouse,” the criminal complaint alleges.

The method Toebbe used to sell secrets from our Virginia-class nuclear submarines to a foreign power doesn’t sound all that unusual at first glance. He transferred data onto SD memory cards and arranged a “dead drop” point where foreign agents could retrieve them. It’s fairly standard stuff if you’ve read many spy novels. His wife would act as his lookout when he made the drops. In return, he received cryptocurrency payments totaling $100,000 over a period of more than six months.

But the first weird part of the story came with how he delivered the memory cards. In one case, he stuffed it into the middle of a peanut butter sandwich in a plastic sandwich bag and left it in a park. On another occasion, he wrapped the card inside of a bandaid wrapper.

The big problem Toebbe had was that he had never once delivered any data for a foreign power. The entire time, his “contacts” were actually FBI agents posing as spies. (The country they allegedly worked for is not named.) This made me wonder at first whether or not he might have been entrapped by intelligence agents who were fishing for people who might betray us.

That wasn’t the case, however. It turns out that Toebbe had proactively sent a message to representatives of a foreign country asking to establish a “covert relationship” and including instructions on using “encrypted communications.” The initial package contained unsolicited secret Navy documents, apparently as a good-faith measure to establish his bona fides. Unfortunately for the would-be traitor, whichever country he sent the package to immediately turned around and sent it to the FBI. That set off the chain of events leading to his fake handlers having him chuck peanut butter sandwiches into a park and the rest is history.

The report includes an almost touching episode where Toebbe contacts his handler. He wrote, “One day, when it is safe, perhaps two old friends will have a chance to stumble into each other at a cafe, share a bottle of wine and laugh over stories of their shared exploits.’’

That bottle of wine may have to wait quite a while and be drunk in a facility with bars on the windows. Passing our nuclear secrets to an adversary carries lengthy prison time and hefty penalties.