Navy Engineer and Wife May Face Life in Prison for Allegedly Trying to Sell Nuclear Sub Secrets

The Virginia-class attack submarine Minnesota under construction.
The Virginia-class attack submarine Minnesota (SSN 783) under construction at Huntington Ingalls Newport News Shipbuilding, November 1, 2012. (U.S. Navy/courtesy of Newport News Shipbuilding)

Navy engineer Jonathan Toebbe and his wife Diana will remain in custody until at least Friday for a detention hearing -- and could spend the rest of their lives behind bars -- after being arrested for allegedly trying to sell nuclear submarine secrets to a foreign country.

Prosecutors argued one of the reasons that the pair should be held in detention is because they faced charges "for which the maximum sentence is life imprisonment or death," according to court records. Federal officials also are concerned about the duo obstructing justice or fleeing the country.

A federal court judge granted the request Tuesday to keep the couple in custody ahead of the upcoming hearing. They were arrested over the weekend following an FBI sting that included an agent posing as a foreign government willing to pay the Toebbes for Navy submarine secrets.

The details of the Navy's nuclear submarine propulsion system are a closely guarded secret that has been shared with only one other country, the United Kingdom. Plans are underway to help Australia build its first nuclear-powered subs.

However, details of what specific information the couple allegedly tried to sell, and to whom they believed they were selling it, have not been made clear.

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The Maryland couple aren't likely to face the death penalty, despite the possibility put forth by prosecutors, but a lifelong prison stay is not far-fetched, said Greg Rinckey, a former U.S. Army prosecutor and Judge Advocate General's Corps defense attorney who has handled hundreds of cases as a civilian lawyer.

"Is there an actual likelihood they'll get the death penalty? I don't believe so," Rinckey said in an interview with "Is there a chance [Jonathan Toebbe] could get life? Absolutely."

The husband and wife duo face two charges: conspiracy to communicate restricted data, and communication of restricted data.

"If the information was, in fact, highly sensitive information that could be critical to national security, that's going to up the penalty and the government's going to want a lot more jail time," Rinckey said.

Rinckey was part of the team that helped defend another person against espionage charges related to submarines -- former Navy sailor Kristian Saucier, who served a year in federal prison for taking photos of classified sections of the submarine on which he worked. He was later pardoned by President Donald Trump.

One of the key details of the Saucier case was that the sailor had taken photos that showed parts of the reactor configuration. The lawyer explained that both adversaries and government officials get interested when leaked information has "anything related to propulsion systems because this is how nuclear submarines really earn their keep."

The Justice Department, in its criminal complaint, alleged that the Toebbes sent along several documents that "contained militarily sensitive design elements, operating parameters, and performance characteristics of Virginia-class submarine reactors."

According to an apparent LinkedIn page for Jonathan Toebbe, he claimed to have worked as a nuclear engineer for the Navy's Nuclear Reactor department and was the technical lead for Columbia-class submarine nuclear design. Court records describe him as "a current employee of the United States Navy."

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

Related: Navy Nuclear Engineer Charged with Trying to Pass Secrets

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