A Maryland couple has been convicted of trying to sell U.S. nuclear submarine secrets to Brazil in a tale too strange to be anything but true.
In a plot that seems destined to be a made-for-tv movie, a nondescript, average couple from suburban Maryland thought they’d hatched the perfect plan to get rich.
In April of 2020, Jonathan Toebbe was a naval nuclear engineer working for the U.S. government. His wife Diana Toebbe was an ordinary housewife with a teaching degree collecting dust and a blistering hatred for Donald Trump on par with the fire of a thousand suns.
The Mueller Report was a complete bust, as were two impeachments against Trump and subsequent investigations since then. Somewhere along the line, politics pushed a seemingly normal couple with no criminal record to decide to…cold call a foreign government with an offer to sell classified U.S. nuclear military secrets.
During the process of discovery, in building the government’s case against the Toebbes, a veritable treasure trove of information was unearthed. Text messages exchanged, communications between the couple and those to whom they hoped to sell U.S. military secrets; everything.
The couple selected Brazil to approach with their nefarious offer: Classified information about U.S. nuclear warships and submarines in return for money. Selling to China or Russia, the couple had decided, would have been “immoral”.
“[Selling to Brazil] is not morally defensible either,” Mr. Toebbe mused in one text message to his wife. “We convinced ourselves it was fine, but it really isn’t either, is it.”
“I have no problems at all with it,” answered his wife and partner in crime, unequivocally. “I feel no loyalty to abstractions.”
Just in case other U.S. employees with access to state secrets are feeling, “no loyalty to abstractions,” the details recently released about the case have been positively hair-raising.
In April of 2020, Mr. Toebbe, under the call sign ALICE, sent a parcel of secret documents to Brazil’s military intelligence agency with promises of more to come…for a price.
Brazilian intelligence officials very promptly and intelligently decided to alert their law enforcement counterparts in the U.S. instead.
Overlooking this overwhelming possibility was Toebbe’s first major mistake, after the extraordinarily large mistake of deciding to sell sensitive military secrets in the first place.
Of course Brazilian officials would make the safe bet of alerting the U.S. Who wouldn’t want to work with an anonymous amateur offering to share classified U.S. military secrets via a sales cold-call?
In December of 2020, eight months after Toebbe sent his illicit package to the Brazilian intelligence agency, U.S. FBI agents posing as Brazilian intelligence officers began responding.
It must have been a very nerve-wracking eight month wait for the Toebbes. Things weren’t about to get better.
Using ProtonMail, FBI agents wrote: “ALICE, we received your letter. We want to work with you. It has been many months, so we need to know if you are still out there. Please respond to this message, then we will provide instructions on how to proceed.”
On February 10, 2021, Toebbe responded as “ALICE”.
“Thank you for contacting me,” ALICE wrote to BOB, which was the handle FBI agents used in the exchange. “I am still here. The covid disease has made it more difficult to find chances to check this email. Let us discuss how to proceed.”
COVID19 made a mockery of everyone’s plans in 2020/2021, didn’t it?
“We understand the delay and hope you are well,” BOB, aka the FBI, responded promptly on February 24. “Our experts reviewed the information you provided. We would like to sample your [US Navy information]. We have a trusted friend in your country who has a gift for you to compensate for your efforts…”
Toebbe also was keen to pick up the pace. Only 9 days later, he responded unfavorably to the overture.
“I am uncomfortable with this arrangement,” ALICE/Toebbe wrote on March 5, 2021. “Face to face meetings are very risky for me, as I am sure you understand. I propose exchanging gifts electronically, for mutual safety. I can upload documents to a secure cloud storage account, encrypted with the key I have provided you. You can send me a suitable gift in Monero cryptocurrency to an address I will provide. 100,000 usd should be enough to prove to me that you are not an unwelcome third party looking to make trouble for me. When I have confirmed receipt of your gift, I will provide you with the download link. We are both protected. I understand this is a large request.”
Large request? FBI agents, after their timid, heavily-veiled offers of a “gift”, must have been dancing with joy once they received this incriminating little missive. FBI agents can easily obtain $100,000 for the purpose of thwarting a criminal conspiracy. And like email scammers using the Nigerian Prince pitch, a bite is all they need.
Anyone naive enough to fall for the initial line is already practically in the bag.
“However, please remember I am risking my life for your benefit and I have taken the first step,” Toebbe begged agents conducting a sting operation, who were in fact building a federal case against him with every keystroke. “Please help me trust you fully.”
Carefully, oh so carefully, waiting only 8 days this time- like a new dating partner trying not to seem overly eager- FBI agents began reeling-in their hapless catch.
“We understand a face to face meeting would be uncomfortable,” answered BOB/FBI. “We suggest a neutral drop location. When you visit the location alone, you retrieve a g-fi and leave behind the sample we request. We hope to have a very long friendship that benefits mutually.”
Four days later, ALICE responded: “I understand your proposal to start a dead drop. I am concerned that using a dead drop location your friend prepares makes me very vulnerable. If other parties are observing the location, I will be unable to detect them.”
“I am not a professional, and I do not have a team supporting me.” Toebbe then complained, inadvertently dropping the hammer on himself.
If Brazilian intelligence hadn’t already turned him into the FBI, they would have done after Toebbe admitted something most people wouldn’t say in an entry-level job interview. Any foreign nation actually considering being in receipt of stolen U.S. military secrets would not have been filled with confidence at this point.
“I am also concerned that a physical gift would be very difficult to explain if I am questioned,” he added. “For now, I must consider the possibility that you are not the person I hope you are.”
Unfortunately for himself and his wife, Toebbe ignored his instincts and attempted to mitigate his legal exposure with modifications.
“1. I will place the sample you requested on a memory card and place it in a drop location of my choosing,” he wrote, before continuing, oddly; “I am not a professional and I am sure that publicly available information on this subject is incomplete.”
“2. The samples will be encrypted using GnuPG symmetric encryption with a randomly generated passphrase.”
“3. I will tell you the location and how to find the card. I will also give you a Monero address. This form of gift protects both of us very well. I am very aware of the risks of blockchain analysis of BitCoin and other cryptocurrencies, and believe Monero gives both of us excellent deniability.”
“4. Once I confirm my gift, I will give you the passphrase.”
“Your friend will never go to the same drop location twice. I will give you a new Monero address each time. The decryption key will be different each time. No patterns for third parties to observe. The only electronic footprints will be Proton to Proton, so there is less risk of encrypted traffic being collected for future analysis by third parties.”
“That part is not perfect,” Toebbe allowed, showing a rare moment of true insight, before adding; “Perhaps as our friendship develops we will change addresses periodically.”
Obviously, the Toebbes put a great deal of thought and effort into these plans. Internet research was clearly referenced at one point. Toebbe seemed strangely disappointed in the amount of information he was able to find online about setting up dead-drops to avoid detection by authorities. The two had definitely seen too many spy movies.
BOB played coy, waiting until April 1, 2021, to respond to ALICE, choosing April Fool’s Day in an ironic twist the Toebbes should have noticed.
All their careful preparations and meticulous planning went for nothing, and the entire scheme was about to come crashing down around them.
To be continued in Suburban Spies Are Us: Part 2.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)