Couple Accused of Selling Sub Secrets Sought to Share Bottle of Wine With Handlers, Court Docs Say
17:47 GMT 13.10.2021 (Updated: 18:03 GMT 13.10.2021)
© Wikipedia / https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virginia-class_submarine#/media/File:Virginia_class_submarine.jpgComputer-based rendering of Virginia class attack submarine
© Wikipedia / https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virginia-class_submarine#/media/File:Virginia_class_submarine.jpg
On Sunday, the Justice Department announced that nuclear engineer Jonathan Toebbe and his wife Diana were arrested by the FBI and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. They're accused of selling secret information on the design of US nuclear-powered warships to undercover FBI agents posing as intelligence officers from an unnamed foreign power.
The Maryland couple accused of trying to sell sub secrets to a foreign nation hoped to be extracted from the US and expected to one day enjoy some face-to-face time and drinks with their handlers, court documents have revealed.
Jonathan Toebbe, accused by the DoJ of illegally trying to provide restricted materials on Virginia-class submarines – one of the most advanced types of nuclear-powered subs in the US arsenal – assured his interlocutors that he methodically collected the information on the vessels over years.
In a criminal complaint seen by media, Toebbe, 42, explained to a person he thought was a foreign handler that he had gathered the secret info “slowly and naturally in the routine of [his] job” in an “extremely careful” manner so as not to arouse suspicions from coworkers and superiors.
“We received training on warning signs to spot insider threats. We made very sure not to display even a single one,” Toebbe reportedly said, expressing confidence that he didn’t think any of his former colleagues would suspect him even in the event of an investigation.
Toebbe was found out after the foreign country he wanted to provide information on the subs to informed US authorities in late 2020. The heads-up prompted the FBI to start communicating with him, with the engineer, who went by the alias ALICE in back-and-forth chats, eventually agreeing to sell info on the subs for $100,000 in Monero cryptocurrency.
A total of $70,000 of that was said to have been paid out to Toebbe prior to his arrest on Saturday together with his wife Diana, 45, at a dead drop site in West Virginia.
Jonathan proved very cautious in his communications, according to the FBI complaint, preferring cryptocurrency to cash, which can be traced using serial numbers and could be bugged with tracking devices. He initially also expressed hesitation in using dead drops, saying he felt vulnerable to any agents potentially monitoring the location. Toebbe refused to use a dead drop address more than once, and on one occasion, hid an SD card with documentation in a peanut butter sandwich. In other instances, he hid cards in other things, including a chewing gum packet and a Band-Aide wrapper.
In April 2021, he was alleged to have asked his interlocutors to prove they were who they said they were by flying a signal flag on the roof of the building of their embassy in Washington, something that the FBI and the foreign power in question apparently agreed to have arranged. On top of that, he asked for the Monero addresses to be switched up each time.
In one exchange with whom he thought was his handler, Toebbe appeared skittish, expressing hope that he and his family would be extracted if things went south.
“I have considered the possible need to leave on short notice. Should that ever become necessary, I will be forever grateful for your help extracting me and my family. I surmise that the first step would be an unannounced travel to a safe third country with plans to meet your colleagues. We have passports and cash set aside for this purpose,” Jonathan Toebbe wrote, according to the FBI.
In another letter, Toebbe became sentimental and expressed hope that he and his handler could meet in a café for drinks someday.
“Thank you for your partnership as well my friend. 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. A fine thought, but I agree that our mutual need for security may make that impossible. Whether we meet or no, I will always remember your bravery in serving your country and your commitment to helping me,” Toebbe reportedly wrote.
The unnamed foreign power whose intelligence service Toebbe thought he was communicating with has not been revealed by the DoJ or the FBI.
Only six countries, including the United States itself, Russia, China, France, India, and Britain have nuclear-powered submarine production technology, and it seems unlikely that Moscow or Beijing would wilfully alert Washington of a spy trying to sell them secrets on American nuclear subs.
The Toebbes have been charged with violating the Atomic Energy Act, a piece of legislation designed to protect US nuclear secrets. They face life in prison if convicted. The couple made their first court appearance on Tuesday.