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US military engineer jailed 20 years for failed espionage bid


A nuclear engineer and his wife have been sentenced to around 20 years in prison each for conspiring to sell US military secrets to an unnamed foreign power, the Department of Justice (DoJ) announced yesterday.

Jonathan and Diana Toebbe, of Annapolis, Maryland, both pleaded guilty to plotting to sell “restricted defense information” that would have endangered the lives of US Navy personnel had it fallen into the wrong hands.

Their methods for doing so entailed a mixture of analog and digital means, with Jonathan, 44, sending a package containing samples of military blueprints for nuclear submarine reactors and using encrypted emails to negotiate payment in cryptocurrency for his illicit services.

The person he was communicating with was not, however, a representative of a foreign power but a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent. The undercover operative received the package and sent $10,000 in cryptocurrency to Jonathan in June last year to entice him to continue his crimes – in this case, concealing an SD card containing sensitive data in a sandwich that he then dead-dropped at a pre-arranged location.

After receiving this second piece of data, the FBI agent wired another payment of $20,000 to Jonathan, who then emailed an encryption key to the undercover operative, allowing them to access the SD card. A second dead drop of another SD card followed in east Virginia in August last year, for which he received a third crypto-payment that brought his total haul to $100,000.

Yet another dead drop, this time in West Virginia, led to the Toebbes’ arrest in October 2021 and their subsequent prosecution and conviction.

The case has provoked an unusually vociferous response from the federal legal community, although it is not clear from the DoJ’s briefing whether Toebbe initiated the communication or whether he was lured into it in the first place by the FBI. Nor was it explained why Toebbe’s wife Diana, 46, received a higher tariff than he did – she was sentenced to 262 months in prison, while her husband was jailed for 232.

“The Toebbes conspired to sell restricted defense information that would place the lives of our men and women in uniform and the security of the United States at risk,” said Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen of the Justice Department’s National Security Division, adding that the DoJ remained “committed to protecting US defense technology.”

“Naval nuclear engineer Jonathan Toebbe was entrusted with our nation’s critical secrets and, along with his wife, put the security of our country at risk for financial gain,” said US Attorney for Pennsylvania Cindy Chung. “Their serious criminal conduct betrayed and endangered the Navy’s loyal and selfless service members. The seriousness of the offense cannot be overstated.”

“These actions are a betrayal of trust, not only to the US government, but also to the American people,” said Assistant Director Alan Kohler of the FBI. “All government employees swear to support and defend the Constitution, and with that oath comes the obligation to protect sensitive information. Those entrusted with such grave responsibility must be held accountable if they violate their oath and betray their country.”


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