This is a really interesting story:
The accused spy knew stealth was crucial from his work on submarines. He surfaced anyway.
Jonathan Toebbe and Diana Toebbe, after their arrest on espionage charges. (AFP /West Virginia Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority)
By William Wan
Today at 7:00 a.m. EDT
For years, the aspiring spy had gone to remarkable lengths to protect his identity and evade detection.
With a cash-bought burner phone, he created an anonymous email account that could send encrypted messages, according to the FBI, then waited to use it.
To avoid suspicion at his job developing America’s most advanced submarines, he allegedly snuck sensitive documents out for years, a few pages at time.
The Navy veteran’s work for the U.S. government had taught him to spot the clues that betray insider threats, and, according to an FBI affidavit, he would later brag that “we made very sure not to display even a single one.”
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But now, after all that caution, the foreign officials Jonathan Toebbe believed he was negotiating with were pushing him to do the one thing he’d been avoiding: come out into the open.
At first, Toebbe — a nuclear engineer and father of two who lives in Annapolis, Md. — pushed back in encrypted email exchanges detailed in the affidavit. “Face to face meetings are very risky for me,” he wrote, “as I am sure you understand.”
A month later, he protested again, “I am sorry to be so stubborn and untrusting, but I cannot agree to go to a location of your choosing.”
But eventually — after a series of trust-building exchanges that involved a secret signal at a Washington, D.C., building and a deposit of $10,000 in cryptocurrency — Toebbe relented.
For almost a decade, Toebbe, 42, who held a top-secret security clearance, was part of the multibillion-dollar effort to build submarines that could remain submerged and undetected for the longest time possible.
The documents he allegedly smuggled out contained schematic designs for one of the Navy’s most advanced boats — the Virginia-class submarine — with a nuclear reactor that could run for 33 years without refueling.
In this world, stealth was everything. And yet, despite all that technological sophistication, every submarine becomes vulnerable the second it surfaces.
Navy engineer and his wife charged with trying to sell submarine secrets with a foreign country
U.S. Navy nuclear engineer Jonathan Toebbe and his wife have been charged for trying to sell nuclear submarine secrets to a foreign country in December of 2020. (Reuters)
On June 26, Toebbe drove to West Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Accompanying him was his wife, Diana Toebbe, 45, a private-school humanities teacher beloved by students and known among friends for her intelligence and liberal politics. They brought with them a tiny data storage card, wrapped in plastic and hidden inside half of a peanut butter sandwich, filled with secrets that they allegedly hoped to sell.
After years of staying submerged, Toebbe and his wife were surfacing. And unbeknownst to them, the FBI was watching their every step.
‘Duty and honor’When the U.S. government announced the couple’s arrest on espionage charges last week, it filed a 23-page affidavit in support of a criminal complaint. Packed with technical notes, it also contained details as riveting as any spy novel.
Navy nuclear engineer and his wife charged with trying to share submarine secrets with a foreign country
There are sly exchanges, red herrings and misdirection. Traps are set, evaded, then baited again.
Left unanswered in all the plot twists: What drove a suburban engineer and his schoolteacher wife to try to sell secrets to a still-unidentified country.
In many ways, the Toebbes were an unlikely pair to stand accused of turning against America. Both came from devoted military families.
“We strongly believe in duty and honor,” said Jonathan’s father, Nelson Toebbe, a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserve Medical Service Corps, who declined an interview.
In addition to Jonathan’s father, his grandfather served in the Navy during World War II, and his great-grandfather was a veteran of World War I. And Jonathan himself served five years on active duty as a Navy nuclear engineering officer and more than two years in the Navy Reserve.
Diana’s family was similarly filled with veterans.
In World War II, her grandfather served on four different submarines in the Pacific, according to relatives and public records. He volunteered for dangerous assignments that tested just how long and deep the boats could stay submerged, relatives said, and passed on his love for submariner culture to his son, Douglas C. Smay, Diana’s father.
Smay served mostly on surface-level naval vessels instead of submarines, but he created a memorial to honor submariner veterans called “52 Boats,” named for the number of submarines lost in World War II.
Diana Toebbe’s father, Douglas C. Smay, created the “52 Boats” memorial in San Diego, a portion of which is seen above, so named because it commemorates 52 submarines the United States lost during World War II and the crews that served aboard them. (John Gibbins/San Diego Union-Tribune/ZUMA Press)
As a teenager in Southern California, Jonathan Toebbe was one of the top students at Upland High School.
“When I found out he’d become a nuclear scientist,” said one former classmate, one of several people who spoke about the Toebbes on the condition of anonymity to speak freely about their recollections. “that didn’t strike me as unusual at all.”
The Upland yearbook devoted an entire article to Jonathan during his sophomore year, ticking off his involvement in varsity swimming, water polo, the honors program, Eagle Scouts and church.
“When asked what his goals in life were, he replied that ‘one goal in life is to be the best at whatever I do,’” the article said.
Even as a teenager, Diana had a passion for progressive causes.
For years, she was one of the few White students at her school, riding a bus daily from her affluent suburban neighborhood to attend a magnet program in downtown San Diego still struggling with integration.
As a 16-year-old, she lamented to a local newspaper the stark inequalities in funding and pointed out her school’s walkways draped with chain-link fencing. “This looks like a prison,” she said. “Grass — is that so much to ask for?”
It was at Emory University that the couple met and fell in love.
Jonathan, three years younger, was in the graduate program for physics. Diana was in Emory’s PhD program for anthropology.
Among anthropology doctoral students — all crammed into the department’s tiny basement office — Diana was known for her desire to challenge the field’s assumptions about gender and race, according to several former professors and students.
Drawing on her own struggles with anxiety disorder, she wrote a prize-winning paper about how obsessive-compulsive behaviors were not so different than other ritualized behaviors condoned by society.
She was a study in contradictions. A black belt in martial arts who loved knitting. A staunch feminist who attended Renaissance fairs in the archaic garb of peasant women.
But something about her appealed to Jonathan.
“It was their shared intelligence,” said a relative on Diana’s side of the family.
In her dissertation, Diana began her acknowledgments by thanking her “forever first, my husband Jon, who acted as my midwife during the painful birth of this work.”
They married in 2003, according a marriage certificate from DeKalb County, Ga., and two years later moved to Colorado, where both took jobs as science teachers at the high-priced, private Kent Denver School.
In 2008, Jonathan began pursuing a second advanced degree, in nuclear engineering, at the well-regarded Colorado School of Mines, where a classmate recalled him as easygoing and an avid Dungeons & Dragons player.
But he left the program for the Navy in 2012 after becoming a parent. His professors bemoaned losing him as potential doctorate student, said the classmate, who now works in the federal government and spoke on the condition of anonymity. But Jonathan said he had a family to support and needed to make much more than he was getting on a graduate student stipend.
When they first arrived in Colorado, the couple bought a four-bedroom newly built home in Aurora for $268,500. But four years later, Jonathan and Diana were struggling to make payments, according to documents filed by their lender against them. In August 2010, they were forced to sell the home at a loss for $206,000.
“The Navy was offering him a job. It was a good deal. Trained nuclear engineers — there aren’t a huge number of us,” said the classmate. “And he was probably one of the smartest guys at the school.”
After moving to the Washington area, for the next nine years, Jonathan specialized in nuclear power and was eventually assigned to the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program, which oversees the nuclear reactors used to power more than 60 aircraft carriers and submarines in the naval fleet. He was never deployed by the Navy, nor did he serve on any ships, according to service records and court documents. Toebbe ended his active-duty service in 2017 but remained in the Navy Reserve until 2020.
The home of Jonathan and Diana Toebbe, in the Annapolis neighborhood of Hillsmere Shores. (Brian Witte/AP)
Meanwhile, Diana taught at the Key School in Annapolis, where tuition runs as high as $31,050 a year. She was a meticulous teacher who pushed students to think differently, said former students and their parents. But she was also warm and encouraging, becoming a mentor to many girls.
The couple bought a modest house for $430,000 in 2014 in Annapolis’ Hillsmere Shores, where residents have their own private marina with direct access to a river and a beach. Their two kids went to Diana’s private school, which allows children of faculty members to attend tuition-free.
“They had money. They both worked hard. It’s not like they were having difficulty with the bills,” said a close relative of Diana’s.
On Facebook and Instagram, Diana chronicled their life together — photos of a potato casserole she baked, a beach vacation, and a video of her children playing in costumes. She posted knitting tutorials on YouTube, coaching her viewers with generous dollops of encouragement.
“If you’ve gotten this far, well done. I’m really, really proud of you,” she tells first-time knitters halfway through one of the videos. “You should take a second and give yourself a pat on the back.”
Her husband kept a lower profile online.
His Facebook page lists “Cryptonomicon” as one of his favorite books.
It’s a science fiction novel that runs nearly 1,000 pages and spans three generations. The book begins with a young Navy captain in World War II and moves in time to the present day, when his grandson, a hacker, embarks on a mission to build a place where encrypted data can be exchanged without scrutiny.
The key to keeping that data haven running, it turns out, is a sunken Nazi submarine.