Speed Reads

Spy vs Amateur

FBI sting to catch Navy spy was apparently aided by the foreign country approached to buy U.S. nuclear secrets

Federal prosecutors said Monday that they will seek pretrial detention for Jonathan and Diana Toebbe, an unassuming suburban Maryland couple arrested Saturday and charged with trying to sell "restricted data" to an unidentified foreign government for $5 million in cryptocurrency. The Toebbes were arrested in West Virginia during what the FBI says was their latest "dead drop" of closely guarded U.S. nuclear submarine secrets for an undercover agent they believed represented the foreign government.

Jonathan Toebbe, a Navy nuclear engineer, was initially hesitant to make in-person handoffs of the classified information, court documents show. "I am concerned that using a dead drop location your friend prepares makes me very vulnerable," he allegedly told his undercover FBI handler. "If other interested parties are observing the location, I will be unable to detect them."

Before Toebbe agreed to drop off loaded memory cards — in sealed Band-Aid packages, gum wrappers, and a peanut butter sandwich — he asked his purported handler to have the foreign country show him a signal from their Washington embassy over the Memorial Day weekend, court papers state. The fact that this country did "convey the unspecified signal suggests its cooperation with the United States throughout the investigation," The New York Times reports

"In fact, it appears to be that a foreign government ratted him out, effectively, to the FBI," says Eric Tucker at The Associated Press. "That would suggest it's probably not China or Russia, necessarily." And Toebbe's messages indicate the country isn't English-speaking. "While some experts speculated France could have been the target, French officials said they were not involved in the incident," the Times reports.

"Although most spy cases don't involve peanut butter and Band-Aids, the facts alleged follow a familiar pattern," David Laufman, a former senior Justice Department official, tells The Washington Post. "What's striking to me, though, is that a foreign government not only informed the FBI about its receipt of sensitive U.S. military technology with potential benefit to that government's defense capabilities, but also appears to have actively cooperated in cultivating a relationship of trust between the FBI and the alleged U.S. spies designed to facilitate their identification and arrest."

The Toebbes are due in court Tuesday. Diana Toebbe, accused of acting as lookout, was indefinitely suspended from her longtime job as an English teacher at the progressive Key School on Monday. The couple has two children and no known financial problems.