Former U.S. Navy Nuclear Engineer Allegedly Tried to Sell Submarine Secrets via Sandwich

Former U.S. Navy Nuclear Engineer Allegedly Tried to Sell Submarine Secrets via Sandwich
The Virginia-class nuclear submarine USS Illinois (SSN 786), seen here returning to Joint Base Pearl Harbour-Hickam in September 2021. (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Michael B. Zingaro / United States Navy, AP)

With all due apologies to the Forbidden Sandwich — the feds may have discovered the world’s most dangerous sammie.

ZDNet reported on Monday, citing a criminal complaint released on Sunday by the Department of Justice, that former U.S. Navy nuclear engineer Jonathan Toebbe and his spouse Diana Toebbe attempted to sell Restricted-class data about nuclear warships to an unidentified foreign government for cryptocurrency. To do so, prosecutors allege, the Toebbes set up multiple dead drops with SD cards containing nuclear data, with the first of them hidden inside a peanut butter sandwich.

Jonathan Toebbe, 42, a former Navy nuclear engineering officer and lieutenant who left active duty for the service in 2017, worked on the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program and had access to large amounts of data on nuclear-powered warships. An FBI special agent wrote in the complaint in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia that he attempted to sell a laundry list of data on the vessels, including non-public technical specs:

Toebbe worked with and had access to information concerning naval nuclear propulsion including information related to military sensitive design elements, operating parameters, and performance characteristics of the reactors for nuclear-powered warships.

While Toebbe was no longer on active duty, he remained a human resources officer in the reserves until December 2020 and had his security clearances renewed in March of that year. (His LinkedIn page is still active.) The FBI agent wrote in the complaint that in December 2020, the agency’s legal attache in “COUNTRY1” received a package that the nation’s representatives said they had received in April 2020 from an unidentified party seeking to establish contact. That package contained “printouts, digital media files containing technical details, operations manuals, and performance reports,” as well as a letter stating the sender’s intention to sell secrets and an SD card containing information on how to respond.

The letter, which was sent on April 1 (also known as April Fool’s Day) with a return address in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, allegedly stated:

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 prank was on the sender, as “COUNTRY1” had apparently reported the espionage offer to the FBI. Agents subsequently made contact with accounts on encrypted email service Protonmail in late December 2020, as instructed in the original letter. According to the special agent who wrote the complaint, the individual responded by asking for $135,730 (AUD) equivalent in the Monero cryptocurrency, after which they would upload the data to a “secure cloud storage account, encrypted with the key I have provided you.” The FBI countered by asking for the wannabe spy to leave an SD card containing the data at a “neutral drop location.”

The sender was hesitant, according to the complaint, after which the FBI assuaged their concerns by arranging to display a signal at a building affiliated with “COUNTRY1” in Washington, D.C., over Memorial Day weekend in 2021. The FBI subsequently paid them $13,614 (AUD) in Monero to earn their trust. Agents arranged for a dead drop in West Virginia on June 26, after which they observed Jonathan Toebbe approach the site and leave a 16 gigabyte SanDisk “SD card… wrapped in plastic and placed between two slices of bread on a half of a peanut butter sandwich.” His wife, Diana Toebbe, allegedly acted as a lookout. The complaint states the FBI then paid the Toebbes another $27,229 (AUD) in Monero for them to forward the decryption key for the “sample.”

In a message left on an SD card during another drop in July, this time concealed in “a sealed Band-Aid wrapper with a Band-Aid inside a clear Zip Lock bag,” the Toebbes allegedly asked for a total of $7 million (AUD) in Monero. Specifically, the complaint says they asked for the cryptocurrency to be split into payments of $136,145 (AUD) equivalent each for 50 separate packages collectively containing thousands of pages of nuclear data. In one communication to the FBI, the complaint continued, Toebbe explained this arrangement as necessary to ensure the feds weren’t just slipping him petty cash out of a bait fund:

The amount per transaction is, in part a security measure. As you noted in your letter, US. security forces are lazy. They also have limited budgets. Bait of] 0,000 or 20,000 USD to catch an agent are within their normal activities. 100,000 USD and more? They may offer it, but they will not deliver such a large amount. New reports confirm this is a common tactic used by US. security forces to expose agents. Please do not be offended by this, but your generosity so far also matches exactly an adversaries [sic] likely play to entrap me.

We can exchange multiple packages at a time, ifyour superiors are comfortable with this arrangement. For security, I would strongly prefer not to make 50 separate drops to complete our business.

Funnily enough, the FBI ended up paying the Toebbes another $95,301 (AUD) in Monero for the decryption key to a third dead drop left in a package of chewing gum in August, bringing the total to $136,145 (AUD).

The contents of the data handed over so far included schematics for the $4 billion Virginia-class nuclear submarine, which ZDNet noted is expected to remain in service until at least the year 2060. The technology used in that model was recently at the centre of a (very amusing) international spat between the U.S. and France. The U.S. and Britain signed a deal with Australia to help it develop nuclear submarines, infuriating the government of France, which had its own $90 billion deal with Australia ruined by the announcement. The French government threw a fit and withdrew its ambassadors from the U.S. and Australia, though Australian officials remained adamant they had communicated to the French their “deep and grave concerns” over the diesel-powered French submarines they had originally been planning to buy.

The feds arrested the Toebbes on Oct. 9th. The two stand accused of multiple charges of violating the Atomic Energy Act, including conspiracy and communicating restricted data.

According to the Baltimore Sun, neighbours of the Toebbes described a swarm of police including more than 15 cars and at least 25 federal agents sweeping through the defendants’ home. FBI agents also conducted interviews with neighbours and “ransacked” a white Mini Cooper of everything including its seats and GPS computer, locals told the paper.

The Sun reported the Toebbes are scheduled to appear in court in Martinsburg, West Virginia, on Oct. 12.