Submarine Spy Couple Enters Guilty Plea, Again
The Maryland couple who tried to sell sensitive submarine nuclear propulsion secrets to a foreign country again pleaded guilty on Tuesday, accepting the prospect of longer prison sentences after a federal judge threw out their original deal as too lenient.
Under the new deal with prosecutors, Jonathan Toebbe, 43, a former Navy nuclear engineer, could serve 27 years or longer in a federal prison. Diana Toebbe, 46, his wife and a former teacher at an Annapolis, Md., private school,could serve more than a dozen years.
The new deals are significantly longer than their original plea agreements, which would have had Mr. Toebbe likely serving about a dozen years and Ms. Toebbe serving three years or less, in federal custody. Judge Gina M. Groh of the Federal District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia in August rejected the original deal between the prosecutors and the Toebbes.
The Toebbes’ case had fascinated many in the public, raising questions about why a couple with a comfortable suburban life would have risked everything they had with a poorly thought out endeavor to sell nuclear secrets. The Toebbes’ plan involved a combination of sophisticated encryption (that the government could not break without Mr. Toebbe’s help) and amateur spy skills (for example, agreeing to a dead drop location under watch by the government).
The proceedings on Tuesday were overseen by a magistrate judge, Robert W. Trumble. It will now be up to Judge Groh to determine the length of the prison terms the Toebbes will serve for their crimes at a future sentencing hearing, the date of which has not yet been set. The new deal reflects Judge Groh’s concerns that the original plea agreements were too short. In August, Judge Groh said Diana Toebbe’s agreement was outside the federal sentencing guidelines, which set stiff prison terms for the mishandling of restricted data covering nuclear energy.
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The new pleas were entered in federal court in Martinsburg, W.Va., not far from Harpers Ferry, the site of the first dead drop of information the couple left an undercover F.B.I. operative.
In the August sentencing hearing, prosecutors argued that Mr. Toebbe bore the brunt of the responsibility, arguing that he held the security clearance and understood the seriousness of mishandling classified information. The new deals reflect that conclusion by the prosecutors.
While investigators had said Ms. Toebbe was a driving force in the couple’s decision to sell secrets to a foreign country, in court, prosecutors said Ms. Toebbe’s primary role was to serve as a lookout when Mr. Toebbe deposited information in a dead drop.
Prosecutors have not revealed in court the name of the country to which the Toebbes tried to sell nuclear secrets. But people briefed on the investigation have identified that country as Brazil. The country has an ambitious plan to build nuclear-powered submarines but has struggled to develop a nuclear reactor for the boats. Mr. Toebbe’s expertise, on how to make nuclear reactors even quieter and harder to detect, would have been of value.
On Tuesday, Jarod Douglas, a federal prosecutor, emphasized a fact that first emerged in August — none of the information that the Toebbes took was classified at the top-secret level. All of it was classified at the confidential level, a step below secret. Had the information been more highly classified, federal guidelines would suggest a longer prison sentence.
During Mr. Toebbe’s hearing, Mr. Douglas said the government had retrieved “a substantial amount” of the cryptocurrency that an undercover F.B.I. officer had provided to the Toebbes as an initial payment to win their trust, as well as all of the classified information that Mr. Toebbe had taken.
The new agreement, while addressing Judge Groh’s concern with the original deal, stipulates that Ms. Toebbe would not serve a term longer than the lowest sentence set by the guidelines. The agreement also lowers the severity level of the guidelines Ms. Toebbe would be sentenced under, based on the fact that the information was not highly classified.
By contrast, prosecutors argued that Mr. Toebbe should be punished more severely because of his “position of responsibility” working inside the Navy’s nuclear reactors division. If Judge Groh accepts the agreement, Mr. Toebbe would likely face between nearly 22 years to slightly more than 27 years in prison. She could also hand out a longer sentence, however, including life in prison.
Judge Groh’s comments during the original August sentencing suggested that while life imprisonment is unlikely, Mr. Toebbe could be facing the high end of the sentencing range.