A US navy nuclear engineer has been charged with trying to pass secrets to what he thought was a foreign state, but turned out to be an FBI agent, the Justice Department said on Sunday night.
Jonathan Toebbe and his wife, Diana, were arrested on Saturday in West Virginia and charged with violating the Atomic Energy Act, the Justice Department said in a statement.
They are scheduled to appear in a West Virginia federal court on Tuesday.
Mr Toebbe, 42, has worked for the US government since 2012, holding a top-secret security clearance and specialising in naval nuclear propulsion. He has also been assigned to a laboratory in the Pittsburgh area that officials say works on nuclear power for the US Navy.
The FBI says the alleged conspiracy began in April 2020 when Mr Toebbe sent a package of Navy documents to an unidentified foreign government, saying he was interested in selling operations manuals, performance reports and other sensitive information.
Authorities claim he also provided instructions for how to conduct the furtive relationship, with a letter that said: “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 FBI’s legal office in the foreign country received the package, which had a return address of Pittsburgh, last December. That led to a months-long undercover operation in which an agent posing as a representative of the foreign government offered to pay thousands of dollars in cryptocurrency for the information Mr Toebbe was offering, a statement said.
At one point, Mr Toebbe hid a digital memory card containing documents about submarine nuclear reactors in half a peanut butter sandwich at a “dead drop” location in West Virginia, while his wife acted as lookout, according to a criminal complaint detailing the charges.
The memory card contained “militarily sensitive design elements, operating parameters and performance characteristics of Virginia-class submarine reactors”, the federal court affidavit said.
The SD card also included a typed message that said, in part: “I hope your experts are very happy with the sample provided and I understand the importance of a small exchange to grow our trust.”
The FBI conducted similar dead-drop exchanges over the next several months, including an August one in Virginia in which Mr Toebbe was paid $70,000 and concealed an SD card in a chewing gum package, the complaint said.
Officials said Mr Toebbe and his wife, who are from Annapolis, Maryland, were arrested after placing yet another memory card at a drop site in West Virginia. They were charged with conspiracy and “communication of restricted data,” according to the document.
John Cooley, who lives across the street from the Toebbes, said he counted more than 30 FBI agents on his block on Saturday from about 2:30 pm until after dark. He said agents went inside the home.
No attorney for the Toebbes was listed in either the court documents or the Justice Department statement.