A couple has been arrested in the US state of West Virginia for allegedly selling information on nuclear warships to what they believed was a foreign state.
Jonathan Toebbe, 42, who worked as a nuclear engineer for the US Navy, and his wife Diana, 45, were arrested by Federal Bureau of Investigation agents on Saturday and charged with breaching the Atomic Energy Act, the Justice Department said on Sunday.
For about a year, the couple “sold information known as restricted data concerning the design of nuclear powered warships to a person they believed was a representative of a foreign power”, the department said, adding that the recipient of the information was an undercover FBI agent.
Mr Toebbe, who was based in Annapolis, Maryland and had access to restricted data on nuclear-powered warships through his work, collaborated with his wife to exchange data on submarine nuclear reactors for about $100,000 in cryptocurrency, the complaint affidavit alleges.
When Mr Toebbe first tried to establish contact with the foreign government – which was not identified in the affidavit – he wrote, “I apologise for this poor translation into your language. Please forward this letter to your military intelligence agency,” the document said.
“I believe this information will be of great value to your nation. This is not a hoax.”
The affidavit said Mr Toebbe in April 2020 mailed a package to the foreign government “containing a sample of restricted data and instructions for establishing a covert relationship”.
The FBI intercepted the package, and the undercover agent posed as a representative of the foreign government to establish a relationship with the couple.
The agent sent Mr Toebbe, who used the pseudonym “Alice”, an email offering him a gift as thanks for the data. But Mr Toebbe responded with caution, asking instead to set up a “dead drop” location and to be paid in cryptocurrency.
The couple in following months transferred multiple encrypted SD (secure digital) cards of data to the agent. In the first dead drop, “the SD card was wrapped in plastic and placed between two slices of bread on a half a peanut butter sandwich”, the agent said in the complaint.
Other SD cards were hidden in a chewing gum package and a sealed Band-Aid wrapper, with the Band-Aid still inside.
The couple was arrested on Saturday after leaving another SD card at a dead drop location.
US Attorney General Merrick Garland praised the agencies involved for “thwarting the plot” and “taking this first step in bringing the perpetrators to justice”.
The couple was due to appear in West Virginia federal court on Tuesday.
US nuclear-powered submarines were at the centre of a major diplomatic crisis between Paris and Washington last month, when Australia scrapped a large contract to buy submarines from France.
Australia and Britain in September unveiled a new defence contract for such subs, negotiated secretly over several months.
To join the pact, Australia abandoned a multimillion-dollar contract with France, sparking an international row that saw Paris recall its ambassador to Canberra.