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Submarine spy case involved babysitter and bandage wrap

WASHINGTON – On July 28, Diana Toebbe posted a Facebook post looking for a babysitter to look after her children early on Saturday morning for five to six hours.

Later the post, visible only to friends, was updated with the word “* FOUND *”. And that Saturday, Ms. Toebbe accompanied her husband, Jonathan, to south-central Pennsylvania.

Unbeknownst to Ms Toebbe, she and her husband were under FBI surveillance as they left their home in Annapolis, Maryland. And officers from the bureau continued to watch in Pennsylvania as Jonathan Toebbe pulled out of his shorts pocket a 32-gigabyte memory card hidden in a sealed band-aid package, which he then, according to court documents, placed in a box. container set up by an undercover FBI agent.

The Toebbes, accused by the U.S. government of attempting to sell some of the United States’ best-kept submarine propulsion secrets to a foreign government, are scheduled to appear in West Virginia federal court on Tuesday. They will face charges related to violating the atomic energy law’s ban on sharing nuclear know-how.

For now, the big questions surrounding the couple – to which country they are accused of trying to sell nuclear secrets and what motivated them to take the risk – remain unanswered.

Mr. Toebbe has been described by acquaintances as a diligent and organized graduate student of nuclear physics who was commissioned into the Navy as an officer and expert in submarine propulsion. He continued as a civilian in the Navy after completing his military service, considered by some to be a mission of choice 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 the parents, she was inclined to talk about her doctorate. in Anthropology from Emory University and his love of knitting. She was a respected counselor, both formally and informally, in school.

“You could just tell she was incredibly smart,” said Craig Martien, 20, a 2019 Key School graduate who has 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 Ms. Toebbe had knitted. Like other Key graduates, Mr. Martien described her as a strong and very liberal feminist.

She was baffled by Trump’s election in 2016, he said, and has mentioned on several occasions that she was considering moving to Australia.

“She said she couldn’t stand the current state of politics and actually found employment opportunities there,” he said.

On social media platforms, Ms Toebbe shared photographs of her dogs, children, meals cooked on the stovetop, family vacations and selfies – ordinary scenes from ordinary life, far different from the cape and dagger amateur act described in the FBI affidavit.

After making contact with the other as yet undisclosed country about providing underwater secrets, the Toebbes were reluctant to expose themselves in a face-to-face meeting, according to the account presented in court documents by the FBI. . But their apparent desire for cryptocurrency payments led them to agree to the undercover agent’s requirement that they drop information in a dead end location – a move that ultimately revealed their identities to the FBI.

Evidence in court documents suggests that the foreign country Toebbes allegedly tried to sell the information to was an ally, or at least some sort of partner, since it cooperated with the FBI as the operation went on. infiltration was taking place. While some experts have speculated that France may have been the target, French officials said they were not involved in the incident.

Tuesday’s hearing will be short. As far as the government knows, neither Jonathan nor Diana Toebbe has a lawyer. Prosecutors on Monday asked the court to detain Mr. Toebbe rather than give him bail, saying he risked life in prison and threatened to abscond. The magistrate could also set a hearing date for the couple’s continued detention.

Searches of public documents did not reveal any signs of financial distress that could motivate them to try and sell US secrets.

Still, the FBI affidavit described the couple as willing to take risks for the promise of payments in a cryptocurrency called Monero.

In February, FBI agents, posing as a representative of the foreign country, offered to meet in person. The response, which was signed “Alice,” a common generic name in military cryptography, wrote that “face-to-face meetings are very risky for me, as you will certainly understand,” the affidavit stated. The writer then offered to transmit information electronically in exchange for $ 100,000 in cryptocurrency.

“Please remember that I am risking my life for your good and that I have taken the first step. Please help me trust you completely, ”the note to FBI undercover agents read.

FBI agents then lobbied for a neutral drop-off location. The response came a few days later: “I’m concerned that using a dead drop site your friend is preparing will make me very vulnerable,” said “Alice” ‘s note, according to the affidavit. “If other interested parties are watching the location, I will be unable to detect them. I am not a professional and I do not have a team to support me.

The memo then proposed that the writer choose a repository location for the encrypted files. FBI agents responded that they would donate $ 10,000 first and then $ 20,000 in cryptocurrency to a deposit location of their choice.

“I’m sorry for being so stubborn and suspicious, but I cannot agree to go to a place of your choosing,” “Alice” replied. “I have to consider the possibility that I am contacting an opponent who intercepted my first message and is attempting to expose me.”

The writer then proposed that the country reassure by sending a signal from his compound in Washington over Memorial Day weekend.

Writing from a Proton encrypted 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 followed FBI instructions to surface for these so-called clandestine depots,” said Michael Atkinson, former inspector general of the intelligence community.

The country’s willingness to send the indeterminate signal suggests its cooperation with the United States throughout the investigation. Mr Atkinson said it was highly unusual for a foreign country to allow the use of its embassy or other facility to send a signal to a suspect being pursued by the FBI.

Mr Atkinson, now a partner at Crowell & Moring law firm, said a similar FBI false flag operation involving a government scientist trying to sell secrets to an ally resulted in a 13-year jail term afterward a plea bargain.

At Key School, where Ms Toebbe taught, and in their Annapolis neighborhood, colleagues, students and neighbors attempted to process the couple’s arrest and charges against them.

Luke Koerschner, 20, a 2019 Key School graduate now at Michigan State University, served on Ms Toebbe’s advisory group for four years. He described her as “very friendly and welcoming”, an outgoing teacher who loved to cheer on her students at the school’s cornhole tournaments.

Matthew Nespole, principal of the Key School, said he was “shocked and dismayed” 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 put Ms Toebbe on indefinite leave.

Julian E. Barnes reported from Washington, and Brenda Wintrode and JoAnna Daemmrich from Annapolis, Md. Kitty bennett contributed research. David E. Sanger contributed to Washington reporting.

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