WWhen accused spies Jonathan and Diana Toebbe were escorted to a West Virginia court to be brought to justice on espionage charges, they looked like any middle-aged suburban couple: struck by a dramatic turn in the circumstances that arise when placed in an orange jumpsuit and restrained by handcuffs.
But the story of the Toebbes, 42 and 45, is now about as far removed from the typical suburb as it gets. It’s a story that reads like a fictional spy caper, mixing a seemingly normal couple with high tech and low espionage.
He worked on nuclear propulsion for submarines, including covert technology designed to reduce noise and vibration from submarines. She was a socially conscious kindergarten teacher at a private school on the waterfront in Annapolis, Maryland.
Two days after being arrested last weekend on a reportedly dead fall, they were faced with a government complaint that they had “sold information known as Restricted Ship Design Data. nuclear powered war on a person they believed to be a representative of a foreign power. ”.
According to the complaint, it was the couple’s third fatal fall since April at fall sites in Jefferson, West Virginia, and another in Pennsylvania.
With every drop, the intended recipient of the encrypted memory cards containing “design elements, operating parameters and performance characteristics of Virginia-class submarine reactors” turned out not to be from “the intelligence agency. 1, but undercover FBI agents, working in conjunction with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, in what former intelligence officials call a classic “false flag” operation.
As the Toebbes digested their new prison environment, Annapolis neighbors were adjusting to their new reality as well, after a dozen black Suburbans pulled up outside the couple’s two-story home in Annapolis, Md., On Saturday. last morning and about 30 armed FBI agents jump.
“We kind of connected the dots because people knew he was working for a nuclear program,” neighbor Chelsea Trotter said. “So in a way it was a relief that it wasn’t a violent crime or something like that.”
On Tuesday, the couple’s second and third cars – a Mini and a Nissan – sat in the driveway. A yellow bicycle was leaning against the house. A doormat read, “Knock or ring the bell to let us give you this song of our people.” Their children, aged 15 and 21, and their two pit bulls, who had barked inside, were picked up by family members.
Most of the neighbors said they never had much to do with the Toebbes. They seemed distant and withdrawn and, in a sense, superior.
“They were super distant. If you waved, there would be no response, ”Trotter said. “It was strange because she was working as a teacher on the streets, so she was obviously interested in the community and was active on the community’s Facebook page. His online persona was very different from his in-person interactions.
Officials at Key School, where Diana Toebbe taught, were discreet. Moms in luxury SUVs mostly declined to comment.
Others in the neighborhood theorized on which foreign country was COUNTRY1. In court, FBI agents and Justice Department prosecutors were unavailable. It is likely that this will only be known if this country, which informed the FBI that it had been approached a few months after the first contact which was allegedly made by Jonathan Toebbe, approves.
“What is striking is the level of cooperation in placing a signal inside the embassy and that he presents himself as an amateur when his job was quite sophisticated,” said a former intelligence official. who requested anonymity.
The evidence in court documents confirms this.
Jonathan Toebbe, posing as “Alice” and taking precautions to identify his correspondent as genuine, asked for “a physical signal that you can make to prove your identity to me”.
“I might plan to visit Washington DC over Memorial Day weekend. I would be just another tourist in the crowd. Perhaps you could hoist a signal flag on your roof? Something easily observable from the street, but nothing to arouse the suspicion of the opponent? “
The FBI agreed. “We are going to put a sign from our main building that can be seen from the street. It will bring you comfort with a signal displayed from an area inside our property that we control and not a [sic] adversary, ”responded the officers.
COUNTRY1 has agreed to place the signal from Saturday night to Sunday morning to allay Toebbe’s fears.
But who would this country be? Only six countries currently have nuclear-powered submarines; United Kingdom, United States, China, Russia, India and France. The technology proposed by Toebbe concerned an improved propulsion, probably quieter, therefore useless at a power which did not already have nuclear propulsion.
Russia and China are unlikely to cooperate with a false flag counterintelligence operation, former intelligence officers said. Meanwhile, the UK has long partnered with the US on its nuclear fleet and recently strengthened that alliance with the Aukus deal, convincing Australia to drop a diesel subcontract in difficulty with France in favor of American-British nuclear models built in cooperation.
As described in the complaint, the Indian Embassy in Washington does not fit the description of an “area within our property that we control”. One of the main candidates for PAYS1, says the former intelligence official, is France.
“This story has become more important because of what happened between the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom and France, but it is not really new,” said Dr Andrew Hammond , historian and curator at the International Spy Museum.
“Few countries can use this kind of technology, so is the identity of the country in question going to be well concealed or become a poorly kept secret?”
From Counter Intelligence Officer Robert Hanssen, serving 20 life sentences, to CIA Affairs Officer Aldrich Ames, to Petty Officer John Walker – even Edward Snowden, the Idealist whose photo also hangs on the spy wall at the National Counter Intelligence Center in Bethesda – The alleged espionage of the Toebbes is part of a tradition of American domestic espionage.
“It’s an interesting case to put in a historical context. There are these echoes of traditional espionage: the dead drop, hiding secrets in mundane items like peanut sandwiches, ”Hammond said.
“But they’re an all-American couple with social media accounts, two kids and good jobs, with secrets to hide. Despite the risk, and their moral and legal obligations, they seem to have decided to play the game for themselves. There are people who think they are smarter than everyone else, yet he made a rather unintelligent decision.
The Toebbes launched their espionage for relatively little in return: only $ 100,000 in cryptocurrency received, according to the Justice Department.
In Annapolis this week, neighbors were puzzled. “From what I understand, they didn’t get a lot of money,” said retired teacher Tom Rankin. “It seemed very strange putting yourself in danger for that kind of money.”
To H Keith Melton, an intelligence historian and specialist in the spy trade, noted that Toebbe’s boast of having carefully removed documents from a nuclear propulsion lab outside of Pittsburgh indicates a dangerously high level of d ‘self esteem.
“Someday, when he is sure, maybe two old friends will have the chance to pass each other in a cafe, share a bottle of wine and laugh at the stories of their common exploits,” he wrote without want it at the FBI.
“Nuclear scientists often think they’re smarter than anyone,” Melton said.