The unbelievable true story of a suburban Maryland couple who tried to sell U.S. nuclear military secrets to Brazil and failed miserably.
If only Jonathan Toebbe had obeyed his instincts, he and his wife Diana might have gotten away with the whole thing.
They might have abandoned their carefully devised plan to sell U.S. nuclear submarine secrets to a foreign nation and remained free to try again. But the plan was just too perfect- he being a nuclear engineer for the US Navy with Top Secret Security Clearance via the US Department of Defense and access to highly confidential materials through the US Department of Energy, she being an unemployed teacher with “no loyalty to abstractions”.
They just couldn’t walk away.
The instant their “contact” inside a Brazilian intelligence agency- in reality the FBI impersonating one, the Brazilian government having sensibly turned the anonymous offer to sell top-secret U.S. military secrets over to their American counterparts long since- asked for an in-person exchange of data for cryptocurrency, the couple should have known better.
“I am concerned that using a dead drop location your friend prepared makes me very vulnerable,” Mr. Toebbe complained in one email exchange, according to documents revealed this week in court. “For now, I must consider the possibility that you are not the person I hope you are.”
“We understand your concern and appreciate the thoughtful plan…as a sign of good faith and trust we wish to pay you the equivalent of 10,000 USD immediately on Monero to the address you provided,” wrote the FBI, code name BOB, a few days later on April 1, 2021.
“Drop locations are safest and allow us to make exchanges without coming in contact and of course leave no electronic footprint…” BOB/FBI continued blithely. Toebbe, code name ALICE, had admitted to being an amateur in an earlier communication and FBI/BOB didn’t hesitate to press their advantage.
“Your proposed method of of memory card with encryption/passphrase is acceptable. For the small sample we requested you will receive another 20,000 USD,” FBI agents answered. “Once you confirm Monero address we will activate payment. Our next step will be information on the drop location we have selected. This method will build trust between us for a larger transaction in future. Our experts are interested in the information you have but we insist on maintaining our discretion and security as a priority.”
Not appearing in-person to transact their misbegotten scheme was presumably what made the Toebbes so carefully select Monero cryptocurrency in the first place.
Nevertheless, once BOB asked ALICE for an in-person dead-drop of BOB’s choosing, Mr. Toebbe still thought he could outsmart anyone trying to catch him, even while admitting someone would use exactly the method of an in-person dead drop to do so.
“I am sorry to be so stubborn and untrusting, but I can not agree to go to a location of your choosing,” ALICE/Toebbe wrote on April 9, 2021. “I must consider the possibility that I am communicating with an adversary who has intercepted my first message and is attempting to expose me. Would not such an adversary wish me to go to a place of his choosing, knowing that an amateur will be unlikely to detect his surveillance?”
“If you insist on physically delivering the package, then it must be a place of my choosing,” ALICE/Toebbe insisted before changing gears completely.
“I ask you to consider the viability of an electronic dead drop,” ALICE begged. “I can establish an encrypted online storage account without providing any identifying information and without provoking any suspicion…”
“Another possibility occurs to me,” ALICE/Toebbe continued with another sudden shift. “Is there some physical signal you can make that proves your identity to me? I could plan to visit Washington D.C. over the Memorial Day weekend. I would just be another tourist in the crowd. Perhaps you could fly a signal flag on your roof? Something easily observable from the street, but nothing to arouse an adversary’s suspicion?…”
FBI agents replied on April 23, 2021, presumably after getting permission from the Brazilian Embassy to fly a signal in their window.
“You do not need to apologize,” BOB/FBI replied. “We appreciate you being careful. That is much better than someone reckless. Your thoughtful plans indicate you are not amateur. This relationship requires mutual comfort.”
“There is risk on both sides and we understand you need for safety assurance of who you are communicating with,” BOB wrote to ALICE. “As you suggest we can accommodate a signal in Washington D.C. over the Memorial Day weekend. We will set a signal from our main building observable from the street. It will bring you comfort with signals on display from the area inside our property that we control and not a [sic] adversary.”
It was FBI perfection, right down to the tiny, not-uncommon grammatical error someone might make if English happened to be their second language.
“If you agree, please acknowledge,” BOB concluded. “We will then provide more instruction about the signal. We hope this plan will continue to build the necessary trust and comfort of our identity.”
There are things people who meticulously plan and premeditate crimes often forget, to their cost.
Criminals, like everyone else, are almost never as smart as they think they are. Everyone thinks they are an above average driver; everyone thinks they are above average in intelligence, above average looking.
Statistically, everyone cannot be right.
While Mr. Toebbe was obviously intelligent, intelligent people are sometimes better at justifying bad behavior. Intelligent people still talk themselves into doing dumb things. Being so smart makes them very good at it.
Intelligent people can also fall into the trap of thinking they can outsmart the cops. Not so. Jonathan Toebbe and his wife may have been smarter than a cop, but criminals aren’t up against one cop, but an entire organizational body with far more experience catching criminals than individual criminals have committing crimes.
Would-be criminals also forget an age old adage repeated by those in law enforcement since time out of mind: The criminal has to get lucky every single time to get away with committing a crime; the cops only need to get lucky once to catch a criminal.
All the FBI needed to do to nab a would-be spy offering to sell U.S. military secrets was to get ALICE to trust them enough to appear in-person to deliver the goods.
On May 5, ALICE bit again.
“I will make plans to be in the capitol over the Memorial Day weekend,” ALICE/Toebbe responded. “It would be best to leave the signal visible for the entire holiday weekend so I can plan to pass by in the natural course of my tourist day. I may be here on foot or passing by in a bus or car or bicycle, so please plan for something easy to spot.”
“We are happy to set a signal to bring you comfort and build necessary trust between us,” responded BOB/FBI eagerly. “The signal will be inside our main building from Saturday morning until Sunday evening Memorial Day weekend.”
The FBI set their trap and waited.
On May 31, BOB/FBI received a message from ALICE. Whoever was on the other end of that moniker had received the signal and was prepared to go further down the FBI’s rabbit hole.
Lulled into a false sense of security by the signal, ALICE unleashed a torrent of leads.
“Now I am comfortable telling you your assumption that Pittsburgh would be a convenient location for me is incorrect…for now I can tell you I am located near Baltimore, Maryland,” ALICE revealed. “Please let me know when you are ready to proceed with our first exchange. Once you have dropped location details for me, I will give you Monero address and prepare the sample you have requested.”
The “sample you have requested” was supposed to be classified military secrets about U.S. nuclear submarines.
Though ALICE had no idea, the FBI was already beginning to tighten the net around the two amateur spies living right in the FBI’s backyard.
Would ALICE really be willing to come out into the open?
In Part 3 of Suburban Spies Are Us, find out how a peanut butter sandwich proved the ultimate undoing of a couple who decided to sell their “loyalty to abstractions” to a foreign country, if obviously a friendly one.
According to text messages exchanged between the two, and by their convoluted reasoning, selling U.S. military secrets to a country unfriendly to the U.S. would have been “wrong”.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)