US NAVY engineer Jonathon Toebbe has been charged with spying after selling nuclear sub secrets that he hid in a peanut butter sandwich.
He had traded top-secret information for $70,000 in Bitcoin with who he believed was a foreign power representative – but was actually an undercover FBI agent.
The 42-year-old and his wife Diana, 45, were arrested in West Virginia on Saturday after he placed a removable memory card at a prearranged "dead drop", according to the Justice Department.
The criminal complaint detailing his espionage-related charges explains his mission to sell the secrets to a foreign power.
The scheme began back in April 2020, the FBI said, when Toebbe sent a package of Navy documents to a foreign government.
He wrote that he was interested in selling manuals, performance reports and other sensitive information regarding Virginia-class nuclear sub reactors.
Toebbe also provided instructions for how to conduct the covert relationship, with a letter that said: "I apologize 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 unidentified foreign government sat on the explosive info until December last year, when they turned them over to US authorities.
According to the criminal complaint, Toebbe hid encrypted memory cards in a peanut butter sandwich, a chewing gum packet and a band-aid wrapper.
The 42-year-old had worked for the US government since 2012, boasting a top-secret security clearance and specializing in naval nuclear propulsion.
The FBI said he was also assigned to a government-owned lab in Pittsburgh that works on nuclear power for the US Navy.
A painstaking months-long mission then began to convince the father-of-two he was in contact with a representative of the foreign government.
An undercover FBI agent made contact with Toebbe and agreed to pay thousands of dollars in cryptocurrency for the information he was offering.
After gaining the trust of the initially wary engineer, the agent sent him $10,000 in cryptocurrency, in what was described as a sign of good faith.
Weeks later, federal agents watched as the Toebbes arrived at an agreed-upon location in West Virginia for the exchange.
I hope your experts are very happy with the sample provided and I understand the importance of a small exchange to grow our trust.
Diana Toebbe appeared to serve as a lookout for her husband during a dead-drop operation for which the FBI forked out $20,000.
Law enforcement recovered a blue memory card wrapped in plastic, placed between two slices of bread on a half of a peanut butter sandwich, court documents say.
The records on the memory card included design elements and performance characteristics of Virginia-class submarine reactors.
The Justice Department describes those submarines as "cruise missile fast-attack submarines, which incorporate the latest in stealth, intelligence gathering, and weapons systems technology."
The memory 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."
In another message, Toebbe made clear he hoped his supposed foreign ally would be able to extract him and his family if he was ever in danger, saying: "We have passports and cash set aside for this purpose."
The FBI conducted similar dead-drop exchanges over the next several months, including one in August in eastern Virginia for which Toebbe was paid roughly $70,000.
In that instance, prosecutors say he concealed a memory card in a chewing gum package that contained schematic designs for the Virginia-class submarine.
LEAKING US "LESSONS"
The criminal complaint against the pair alleges violations of the Atomic Energy Act, which restricts the disclosure of information related to atomic weapons or nuclear materials.
The email exchanges suggest that Toebbe was offering the sensitive information to a nation that already has nuclear submarines.
In one message, he said the leaked data "reflects decades of U.S. Navy 'lessons learned' that will help keep your sailors safe."
Toebbe used two pseudonyms – Alice Hill and Bob Burn – throughout the emails in an attempt to conceal his true identity.
It is unclear how many counts the couple, who live in Annapolis, Maryland face.
Espionage carries a maximum sentence of ten years under US law.
Toebbe's wife Diana, who is a humanities teacher at the Key School has been suspended indefinitely from the private teaching facility in Annapolis.
The pair are scheduled to appear in a West Virginia federal court on Tuesday.
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