WASHINGTON — On July 28, Diana Toebbe posted a Facebook message looking for a babysitter who could babysit her children for 5-6am early on Saturday morning.
Later, the message, which was only visible to friends, was updated with the word “*FOUND*”. And on that Saturday, Mrs. Toebbe accompanied her husband, Jonathan, to southern Pennsylvania.
Unbeknownst to Ms. Toebbe, she and her husband were being watched by the FBI as they left their home in Annapolis, Maryland. And the agency’s agents continued to watch in Pennsylvania as Jonathan Toebbe pulled a 32-gigabyte memory card from his pocket in a sealed patch package, which, according to court papers, he placed in a container set up by an undercover FBI agent.
De Toebbes, accused by the US government of attempting to sell some of America’s best-guarded secrets of submarine propulsion to a foreign government, will appear in federal court in West Virginia on Tuesday. They will be charged with violating the ban on sharing nuclear know-how in the Atomic Energy Act.
For now, the big questions surrounding the pair — which country they are accused of trying to sell the nuclear secrets to and what motivated them to take the risk — remain unanswered.
Mr. Toebbe was described by acquaintances as a diligent and organized student of nuclear physics who was assigned to the Navy as an officer and expert in submarine propulsion. He continued as a civilian in the Navy after finishing his military service, considered by some to be a plum assignment for the most talented nuclear physicists.
Ms. Toebbe was a 10-year veteran of Key School, a progressive private school in Annapolis, where she taught history and English. There, according to parents, she was inclined to talk about her Ph.D. in anthropology from Emory University and her love of knitting. She was a respected advisor, both formally and informally, at the school.
“You could just tell she was insanely smart,” says Craig Martien, 20, a 2019 Key School graduate who worked closely with Ms. Toebbe on the yearbook and an after-school anthropology club. “She was very friendly and down to earth, and I got on really well with her.”
When Mr. Martien went to Williams College, he brought a toy squid that Mrs. Toebbe had knitted. Like other Key graduates, Mr. Martien described her as a strong feminist and very liberal.
She was surprised by Trump’s election in 2016, he said, and said several times that she considered moving to Australia.
“She said she couldn’t handle the current state of politics and even found a job there,” he said.
On social media platforms, Mrs. Toebbe shared photos of her dogs, her children, meals cooked on the stove, a family vacation and selfies — ordinary scenes from an ordinary life, a very different from the amateur cloak-and-dagger act that is portrayed in the FBI’s affidavit.
After contacting the undisclosed other country about providing undersea secrets, the Toebbes were reluctant to reveal themselves in a face-to-face meeting, according to the story set out in court documents by the FBI. agreeing to the undercover agent’s demand that they put information in a dead spot – a decision that ultimately exposed their identities to the FBI
Evidence in the court documents suggests that the foreign country that the Toebbes allegedly tried to sell the information to was an ally, or at least something of a partner, as it cooperated with the FBI as the covert operation unfolded. While some experts speculated that France could be the target, French officials said they were not involved in the incident.
Tuesday’s hearing will be brief. As far as the government knows, neither Jonathan nor Diana Toebbe has a lawyer. Prosecutors asked the court on Monday to detain Mr Toebbe rather than release him on bail, saying he could face life in prison and posed a flight threat. The examining magistrate could also set a court date for the couple’s continued detention.
Searches of public records revealed no signs of financial trouble that might motivate them to sell American secrets.
Still, the FBI affidavit portrayed the couple as willing to take risks for the promise of payments in a cryptocurrency called Monero.
In February, FBI agents posing as foreign representatives suggested a face-to-face meeting. The response, which was signed “Alice,” a common name in military cryptography, wrote that “personal encounters are very risky for me, as you no doubt understand,” the affidavit said. The writer then proposed to pass information electronically in exchange for $100,000 in the cryptocurrency.
“Remember that I risk my life for your benefit and that I have taken the first step. Please help me trust you completely,” the note read to the undercover FBI agents.
The FBI agents then insisted on a neutral drop location. The answer came a few days later: “I’m concerned that using a dead drop location that your friend is preparing makes me very vulnerable,” according to the note from “Alice,” according to the affidavit. “If other interested parties observe the location, I cannot detect them. I’m not a professional and I don’t have a team to support me.”
The note went on to suggest that the writer choose a place to put the encrypted files. The FBI agents replied that they would give $10,000 first and then $20,000 worth of cryptocurrency at a drop location of their choice.
“I’m sorry to be so stubborn and suspicious, but I can’t agree to go to a location of my choice,” said Alice’s response. “I have to consider the possibility that I am communicating with an opponent who has intercepted my first message and is trying to expose me.”
The writer then suggested that the country provide reassurance by sending a signal from its Washington complex over Memorial Day weekend.
Writing from an encrypted Proton email account, “Alice” said the signal had been received and agreed to drop the material at the location chosen by the undercover agent — a trade mistake, some experts said.
“It was somewhat surprising that someone who has studied submarine warfare would follow the FBI’s cues to surface for these supposedly clandestine drop-offs,” said Michael Atkinson, a former inspector general of the intelligence community.
The country’s willingness to deliver the unspecified signal suggests its cooperation with the United States throughout the investigation. Mr Atkinson said it was highly unusual for a foreign country to use its embassy or other facility to send a signal to a suspect being pursued by the FBI
Mr Atkinson, now a partner at the law firm Crowell & Moring, said a similar false flag operation by the FBI involving a government scientist trying to sell secrets to an ally resulted in a 13-year prison term after a plea deal.
At the Key School, where Mrs. Toebbe taught, and in their Annapolis neighborhood, colleagues, students and neighbors tried to process the couple’s arrest and the charges against them.
Luke Koerschner, 20, a 2019 Key School graduate of Michigan State University, served on Ms. Toebbe’s advisory group for four years. He described her as “very friendly and hospitable,” an outgoing teacher who loved to encourage her students at the school’s cornhole tournaments.
Matthew Nespole, principal of the Key School, said he was “shocked and horrified” to learn of the charges against the Toebbes and that the school “supports the administration of justice by the FBI and NCIS and will cooperate with the investigation.” The Key School has placed Ms Toebbe on leave for an indefinite period.
Julian E. Barnes reported from Washington, and Brenda Wintrode and JoAnna Daemmrich reported from Annapolis. Kitty Bennett research contributed. David E. Sanger in Washington contributed reporting.