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How the FBI protects American intel: a bizarre case study

What motivates people to become spies? Certainly not money, the FBI discovers.
Image: Virginia-class attack submarine sea trial
The Virginia-class attack submarine Pre-Commissioning Unit New Mexico (SSN 779) undergoes Bravo sea trials in the Atlantic Ocean, on Nov. 26, 2009.US Navy/AFP - Getty Images file

On Saturday, a Navy nuclear engineer and his wife were arrested in West Virginia by the FBI and accused of attempting to pass extremely sensitive secrets about submarine technology to another country in violation of the Atomic Energy Act. Jonathan and Diana Toebbe of Maryland are charged with contacting a foreign nation, offering cutting-edge secrets about American nuclear-powered submarines and then engaging in multiple clandestine exchanges of classified information with undercover FBI agents in return for $100,000 in cryptocurrency.

Some of the restricted data the couple are accused of trying to sell includes the nuclear propulsion system of Virginia-class fast attack submarines.

Some of the restricted data the couple are accused of trying to sell was information about the nuclear propulsion system of Virginia-class fast attack submarines, the technology at the heart of a recent deal the U.S. and the United Kingdom struck with Australia. It’s the kind of technology that gives the U.S. a crucial edge over adversaries in the race for quieter, less detectable submarines and warships. According to the criminal complaint, each Virginia-class submarine costs about $3 billion and includes the latest in stealth and weapons systems technology. And it’s the kind of advanced military secret that nations such as China and Russia would pay just about anything for.

The court documents unsealed Sunday tell a strange, almost bemusing story of the Toebbes’ use of encrypted communications, their apologies for poor language translations, their anxiety over selecting “dead drop” locations along wooded nature trails and their secreting small digital SD cards loaded with classified data inside Band-Aid packages and chewing gum wrappers and even between slices of bread in half a peanut butter sandwich. It’s quite an account — but it’s not the whole story. Mysteries remain, including four questions that, because of the classified nature of espionage cases, may never be publicly answered.

First: Why would Jonathan Toebbe — a nuclear propulsion engineer with high-level clearances and a stint working for the chief of naval operations — give it all up, betray his country and risk lifetime imprisonment? And why, in a highly unusual spy couple scenario, would his wife, Diana — a history and English teacher — be his partner in crime?

FBI behavioralists have extensively interviewed and studied virtually every American convicted of espionage in an initiative called “Project Slammer.” They identified certain commonalities and traits associated with spies, including ego, a sense of grievance and anti-social personality. Interestingly, the more obvious motivator of financial greed plays less of a role than we might think. As the Toebbe case unfolds, we might get some glimpse into why, collectively as a couple, the government believes they decided to risk it all. This question of “why” goes far beyond mere curiosity. If we can crack the code of the nuanced human indicators and warning signs of would-be spies, we might be able to prevent serious national security damage.

Second: What happened during a mysterious gap of more than eight months between the unidentified country’s receiving what the government says the Toebbes offered — reportedly a package sent in the mail — and that government’s reporting it to the FBI? The criminal complaint states:

“On or about December 20, 2020, the FBI’s attaché (“LEGAT”) in COUNTRY1 obtained a package representatives from COUNTRY1 had received in April 2020 through a mail carrier from the U.S. by an unidentified subject in an attempt to establish a covert relationship. The package contained U.S. Navy documents, a letter containing instructions, and an SD card containing specific instructions on how COUNTRY1 should respond using an encrypted communication platform, and additional documents.

“The package that contained the material described above was a brown envelope with four U.S. postage stamps, a postal barcode, and a sent date of April 1, 2020.”

If the Toebbes were trying to become spies, was this their first and only attempt?

April to December is a long time for a foreign nation to possess and analyze classified U.S. nuclear propulsion data. What did it do with it? Why did it get passed to the FBI’s representative in that country instead of being passed between respective leadership in Washington? Did the coronavirus pandemic play some role in the delay? Does the criminal complaint contain the entire story? Almost certainly not.

Third: If the Toebbes were trying to become spies, was this their first and only attempt? The complaint raises serious doubts. For example, the court document alleges that in one encrypted foreign-language communication from Toebbe to the FBI undercover agent, he reveals:

“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.”

Collected “over several years”? If that’s true, the Toebbes either had a long-term plan to patiently wait for the right time to betray their country or they had already tried to pass the information to some other nation. A similar concern is raised by another quote the government attributes to Toebbe, communicating with the person it says he thinks is a foreign intelligence officer about use of the encrypted email application Proton. According to the government, he says, “My new Proton is actually an old one I established quietly with a cash only burner phone while on vacation several years ago.”

Again, if true, that’s evidence of potential long-term spying, perhaps for some other country, that went undetected. Clearly, a complete security review is needed to determine how all this might have gone on for so long.

Lastly: Which country do we have to thank for tipping us off? While we can’t be certain, it’s unlikely that the solicitation involved China or Russia or some other traditional adversary. That’s because whatever country it was decided to tell the FBI and to later cooperate with the ensuing FBI undercover operation. In fact, according to the government, that country agreed to allow the FBI to place a “signal” to the Toebbes at a building — most likely its embassy — associated with that nation in Washington over Memorial Day weekend.

While adversaries sometimes report offers and approaches that they fear could be U.S. intelligence traps — for example, in 1993, the Russian GRU reported an approach by an unknown man later determined to be FBI spy Robert Hanssen — it would be highly unusual for adversaries to cooperate to this extent, particularly when submarines are involved.

Which country do we have to thank for tipping us off?

That means the mystery country may be an ally. Or if it wasn’t, it certainly is now better positioned to be one. One clue to the country’s identity may be a line that the complaint says Toebbe sent to the undercover agent: “One day, when it is safe, perhaps two old friends will have a chance to stumble into each other at a café, share a bottle of wine and laugh over stories of their shared exploits.”

Café and wine suggest a certain European country known for its cafés and wines. But for now, we’ll have to be content with the knowledge that grave damage to national security may have been averted because of help from a friend. To whoever that friend was, we Americans say, “Merci beaucoup.”