US Navy couple pleads not guilty to espionage-related charges in alleged submarine secrets scheme

·3 min read

A former US Navy engineer and his wife pleaded not guilty to charges stemming from a year-long FBI sting in which the couple allegedly sold classified nuclear submarine plans to a person they believed worked for a foreign government.

The couple – Jonathan and Diana Toebbe of Annapolis, Maryland – returned to federal court in West Virginia on 20 October, a day after the US Department of Justice announced indictments for conspiracy to communicate restricted data and two counts of communication of restricted data.

They face up to life in prison, if convicted. Mr Toebbe has waived his right to a detention hearing and will remain incarcerated until a trial begins.

The couple appeared in orange jumpsuits and handcuffs during their second in-person hearing broadcast via teleconference in Magistrate Judge Robert Trumble’s court in the Northern District of West Virginia.

The couple was arrested on 9 October, the culmination of an alleged scheme in which Mr Toebbe negotiated the trade of closely held Virginia-class nuclear submarine secrets with a foreign power for thousands of dollars in cryptocurrency, according to the US Department of Justice.

In December 2020, the FBI reportedly obtained a package intercepted by authorities but intended for another country containing operational manuals and other information – all marked “CONFIDENTIAL” – as well as instructions to communicate with the sender, in what appeared to be an attempt to establish a covert relationship, according to an affidavit filed on 8 October.

The FBI then allegedly posed as foreign officials to trade encrypted messages with the sender – alleged to be Mr Toebbe – using code names, negotiate dead-drop locations, and send $100,000 in US dollars in the Monero cryptocurrency before he allegedly shared a memory card with top-secret plans inside a peanut butter sandwich, a Band-Aid and a chewing gum package.

Over the following months, the FBI repeatedly messaged with a person using the alias “Alice” – which prosecutors allege is Mr Toebbe – to negotiate cryptocurrency payments and schedule dead drops containing memory cards with naval information marked as “redacted” in court documents.

At a detention hearing for Ms Toebbe on 20 October, prosecutors interviewed an FBI agent and presented photographs and videos taken by the FBI reportedly documenting the couple during dead drops.

According to the federal complaint, Mr Toebbe said in encrypted messages with a person he believed was a foreign agent that he “considered the possible need to leave on short notice” and would be “forever grateful for your help extracting me and my family,” which prosecutors have argued could make them a flight risk.

The FBI said a search of the couple’s home in Annapolis turned up shredded documents, a crypto wallet, more than $11,300 in cash, passports and a “go bag” with a computer and latex gloves.

Defence for Mrs Toebbe argued, and the FBI confirmed, that none of the messages included in the sting involved her computer. The FBI also does not have recordings of conversations between the couple, according to testimony on 20 October.

Her attorney also argued that messages reviewed by federal law enforcement showed that she wanted to leave the US if Donald Trump was re-elected.

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Spy drops, submarine secrets and peanut butter sandwiches: What we know about alleged Navy espionage case

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