On Wednesday, a federal court handed down a 19-year sentence to a Navy engineer and almost 22 years to his wife for their failed effort to sell classified information on nuclear propulsion to a foreign government.
Even though Diana Toebbe’s husband, Jonathan, was the one with the security clearance and who stole the critical data from the Navy, U.S. District Judge Gina M. Groh nonetheless awarded him a shorter sentence and gave his wife a harsher one. Ms. Toebbe’s extended term was justified, according to Judge Groh, since she attempted to impede justice by writing to her husband from prison.
In his ruling, Judge Groh said that the defendants committed a “very heinous” act that endangered the safety of the whole country. Despite the fact that prosecutors had requested just three years in prison for Ms. Toebbe, Judge Groh ruled that this was “not your normal case.” Although Mr. Toebbe, 44, had access to the material, the court noted that Ms. Toebbe, 46, was “driving the bus” and had a significant part in developing the plan and covering it up.
The previous plea agreements reached by the Toebbes were thrown out by Judge Groh in August on the grounds that they were excessively mild, compelling the Toebbes to negotiate fresh agreements with prosecutors and raising the possibility of considerably lengthier jail terms.
On Wednesday, during the sentence hearing in Martinsburg, West Virginia, Judge Groh branded the Toebbes “admitted traitors” and repeatedly noted the complexity of their attempt to sell national secrets by employing clandestine communications and even putting information in a peanut butter sandwich. The assumption that Mr. Toebbe had greater responsibility for the crime was called into doubt by her.
Judge Groh added that, unlike his wife, Mr. Toebbe had made good use of his time in prison by educating convicts, and that he should be commended for this.
His “remorse that he communicated to the court is absolutely sincere,” she added.
Prosecutors found themselves in the uncommon position of advocating for a lighter sentence for Ms. Toebbe due to Judge Groh’s attitude, claiming that the crime was the husband’s fault.
According to court documents and officials briefed on the investigation, Jonathan Toebbe worked at the Washington Navy Yard on the nuclear reactors that power America’s secretive fleet of submarines, and Diana Toebbe was a teacher at an elite private school in Annapolis, Md., when they hatched a plot to try to sell intelligence to Brazil.
There is no proof that the Toebbes stole highly sensitive material; instead, authorities claim that the data Mr. Toebbe sought to sell was just confidential. However, Judge Groh advised the Navy to proceed as if the intelligence Mr. Toebbe stole had been obtained by hostile foreign powers.
The Toebbes thought that Brazil, despite its relative friendliness, would nevertheless pay for access to nuclear secrets because of the country’s ambition to construct its own nuclear submarines. However, Brazil was unwilling to jeopardise its relationships with American intelligence services by negotiating a deal with an unidentified spy. Thus, Brazilian military intelligence authorities handed along to the F.B.I. the letter Mr. Toebbe had provided them anonymously, prompting the American agency to make an attempt to determine his true name.