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Ex-Navy nuclear engineer and his wife are charged in an espionage plot


An engineer for the U.S. Navy and his wife are due in federal court in West Virginia today. It's their first court appearance since being charged with trying to sell military secrets to another country. But instead of selling it to a foreign power, the Justice Department says the couple was caught in an FBI sting operation. NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas joins us now to tell us all about the case. Ryan, there are details in this complaint that really read like a spy novel. But let's start at the very beginning. Who is this couple, and what are they accused of?

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: So the couple, this is Jonathan Toebbe and his wife Diana. They are from Annapolis, Md. He works as a nuclear engineer for the Navy with top-secret security clearance. His focus at work has been on naval nuclear propulsion. His wife, Diana, is a humanities teacher at a private school, and prosecutors say that she was in on this alleged scheme.

According to court papers, this whole thing started back in 2020, when the FBI got its hands on a package that prosecutors say Jonathan Toebbe had mailed to a foreign government seeking to establish a covert relationship to sell secret information in exchange for money. Court papers don't say which country it was, but the FBI posed as representatives of that unnamed country and went back and forth with Toebbe, communicating through encrypted channels. Court filings say that led to a series of exchanges in which Toebbe left small digital cards with thousands of pages of information on them in so-called dead drops. And the FBI says his wife acted as a lookout on several occasions when Toebbe left these small packages of information. And then they got paid by the undercover FBI agents in cryptocurrency.

MARTÍNEZ: Got to find out more about dead drops. What are dead drops?

LUCAS: Well, these are secret hiding places that spies use to pass information. In this case, prosecutors say Toebbe hid these digital cards inside things that were left at the dead drops. He allegedly hid them inside a Band-Aid package, a gum wrapper. And in one instance, Toebbe allegedly wrapped this digital card in plastic and then put it inside half of a peanut butter sandwich that was left in a plastic bag at the dead drop. The thing is here, of course, the FBI was watching them as they allegedly did this. (Unintelligible).

MARTÍNEZ: A lot of peanut butter in the show today - don't know how to explain that. So - OK, so what do we know about how - the kind of information he was allegedly trying to sell?

LUCAS: Well, according to court papers and the government, this was pretty serious stuff. Prosecutors say the information included schematic designs, operating parameters, stuff like that for the U.S. Navy's Virginia class nuclear-powered submarine. Court papers describe those submarines as fast attack submarines with the latest in stealth and weapons technology. They cost $3 billion apiece, thereabouts. This information certainly could help a foreign power build submarines equipped with nuclear propulsion systems. It's the kind of technology that was the subject of that recent deal that you may recall between the U.S., the U.K. and Australia that caused such a rift with France when the U.S. cut France out of the deal. So this sort of technology is very closely held stuff.

MARTÍNEZ: Has the couple said anything?

LUCAS: At this point, they have not, no. They were arrested over the weekend in West Virginia. As of last night, it was still unclear whether they had hired an attorney. They are scheduled to make their initial appearance in federal court today in Martinsburg, W.Va. Prosecutors have already indicated in court filings that they want the Toebbes to remain in custody. The government says the couple possibly faces life in prison if convicted and, therefore, is a risk of flight.

MARTÍNEZ: One more thing - I mean, how big of a concern is this kind of espionage to the U.S. government?

LUCAS: Insider threats like this, where a government employee allegedly takes restricted or classified information and tries to sell it to a foreign power, is a huge concern for the U.S. government. In fact, Toebbe allegedly wrote in one of his messages here that he had received training on how to spot an insider who might be stealing information. And Toebbe actually adjusted his behavior based on that. So yes, this is a major concern for the U.S. government.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Ryan Lucas. Ryan, thanks a lot.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.