A Navy nuclear engineer and his wife have been arrested on espionage charges alleging atomic energy law violations after selling restricted design data of nuclear-powered warships to someone they thought they were a foreign power agent.
However, Jonathan and Diana Toebbe (both defendants) sold the confidential information (including printouts, digital media files containing technical details, operations manuals, and performance reports) to an undercover FBI agent.
Jonathan Toebbe was a nuclear engineer assigned to the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program, also known as Naval Reactors, of the Department of the Navy. He also had access to restricted data since he held an active national security clearance through the US Department of Defense.
While working as a nuclear engineer in the Navy, Toebbe had access to information on naval nuclear propulsion, including sensitive military design elements, operating parameters and performance characteristics of the reactors of powered warships. nuclear.
Encrypted emails and undercover agents
The exchange began with a package sent to a foreign government on April 1, 2020, containing “US Navy documents, a letter with instructions, and an SD card with specific instructions on how COUNTRY 1 should respond. using an encrypted communication platform, and additional documents. . “
According to court documents, the FBI attache in the unspecified country informed the FBI, who in December 2020 contacted Jonathan Toebbe via an encrypted ProtonMail email through an undercover agent posing as for a representative of COUNTRY 1.
In subsequent email exchanges (between April and June 2021), the FBI asked the accused to provide additional confidential US Navy information to a standstill.
Toebbe eventually agreed after asking to be paid in Monero cryptocurrency and delivered to a “dead drop” location in Jefferson County, West Virginia.
“The samples will be encrypted using GnuPG symmetric encryption with a randomly generated passphrase,” Toebbe told the undercover agent via an encrypted email. “I will tell you the location and how to find the map. I will also give you a Monero address. I am very aware of the risks of blockchain analysis of BitCoin and other cryptocurrencies, and I believe that Monero us offers both excellent denial. “
Before agreeing to deliver the encrypted documents to a dead location, the defendant also expressed his fear of communicating with someone other than the foreign power agent to whom he believed he was sending the confidential data.
“I’m sorry for being so stubborn and suspicious, but I cannot agree to go to a place of your choice,” he said. “I have to consider the possibility that I am contacting an opponent who intercepted my first message and is attempting to expose me.”
“Wouldn’t such an adversary want me to go to a location of their choice, knowing that an amateur is unlikely to detect their surveillance? If you insist that I physically deliver the package, then it must be a location of my choice. “
The dead drops
On June 26, with his wife acting as a lookout, Jonathan Toebbe placed an SD card hidden in half of a peanut butter sandwich at the pre-arranged dead drop location.
“On August 28, Jonathan Toebbe made another SD card ‘dead fall’ in eastern Virginia, this time hiding the card in a packet of chewing gum. After making a payment to Toebbe of $ 70,000 in cryptocurrency, the FBI received a decryption key. for the map, ”said a press release from the Ministry of Justice.
Jonathan and Diana Toebbe, of Annapolis, Md., Were arrested by the FBI and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) on Saturday, October 9, after delivering another SD card to a pre-arranged dead drop at a second place in West Virginia.
“The complaint accuses a conspiracy to pass information relating to the design of our nuclear submarines to a foreign country,” Attorney General Merrick B. Garland said.
“The work of the FBI, Department of Justice prosecutors, the Navy Criminal Investigation Service and the Department of Energy has been essential in thwarting the conspiracy accused in the complaint and in taking this first step in bringing the perpetrators to justice. in justice. “
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