Lee O. Sanderlin
An Annapolis couple pleaded guilty in federal court — again — admitting to their would-be plot to sell thousands of pages of classified U.S. nuclear submarine secrets to a foreign government.
Jonathan and Diana Toebbe appeared Tuesday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert Trumble in the Northern District of West Virginia, agreeing to longer sentences after a different judge rejected their first plea deals in August because they were too lenient and “not in the best interest” of the country.
Jonathan Toebbe, 43. is a former Navy engineer and officer and worked on projects related to nuclear submarine propulsion. Diana Toebbe, 46, was a humanities teacher at the Key School. A sentencing date for the couple has not been set and they remain in federal custody.
For more than a year undercover agents, posing as a foreign government, communicated with Jonathan Toebbe using an encrypted email service to facilitate four document drops in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Jonathan Toebbe would download the classified materials onto SD cards, concealing them in peanut butter sandwiches or bubblegum packages, and leaving them at predetermined locations while his wife acted as his lookout.
Jonathan Toebbe pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to communicate restricted data and prosecutors are suggesting a sentence within his guideline range, which was previously between 15 1/2 and 19 1/2 years. Originally, prosecutors and Jonathan Toebbe agreed to a sentence between 12 1/2 and 17 1/2 years.
The judge in the Aug. 16 hearing rejected that sentence, seeking something harsher for his espionage. Vice Adm. William Houston commands the Navy’s Atlantic submarine fleet and told the court then that Jonathan Toebbe’s plot would have hurt national defense.
“Mr. Toebbe captured some of the most secure and sensitive information about our nuclear-powered fleet,” Houston wrote. “A critical component of national defense has been irreparably compromised.”
Over the course of his attempted-espionage, Jonathan Toebbe smuggled classified information out of work about the Navy’s Virginia-class attack submarines, a highly-sophisticated nuclear-powered boat carrying cruise missiles that can run for 33 years without refueling. He then divulged classified documents containing schematic designs, operating parameters and performance characteristics of the submarines to FBI agents posing as foreign agents.
Diana Toebbe also pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to communicate restricted data and prosecutors are now seeking to incarcerate her for at least 12 1/2 years, the minimum sentence for the charge. Previously, prosecutors sought three years imprisonment, saying she was a minor player in the plot, acting as a lookout for her husband.
On three occasions, Diana Toebbe served as her husband’s lookout. On one occasion, the couple posed as tourists on a hike in West Virginia, with Diana Toebbe watching as her husband placed the sandwich with the SD card inside it. FBI agents captured it on camera.
Authorities, in public and in court papers, have never identified the country to which the Toebbes sought to sell the information.
In April 2020, Jonathan Toebbe sent his first letter to the unnamed government with a sampling of some of the information he had, telling the recipient to contact him by the end of the year if they wanted to purchase more information. In December 2020, days before his stated deadline, the foreign recipient shared the letter and documents with the FBI, which then launched an investigation into the couple.
“This information was slowly and carefully collected over several years in the normal course of my job to avoid attracting attention and smuggled past security checkpoints a few pages at a time,” the FBI quoted Toebbe as messaging them, according to court records. “I no longer have access to classified data so unfortunately cannot help you obtain other files.”
Originally, Diana Toebbe had pleaded not guilty, and Jonathan Toebbe expressed optimism she could be exonerated. But later, in his Feb. 14 plea agreement, he identified his wife as his co-conspirator. Diana Toebbe pleaded guilty for the first time Feb. 18.
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