The nuclear engineer accused of attempting to sell nuclear submarine secrets to what he thought was a foreign nation was a spycraft aficionado who fantasized about sharing a bottle of wine with his handler like “two old friends.” Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson penned an op-ed this week titled, “Trump has picked a fight with the FBI. He’ll be sorry.” (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Engineer caught in spy sting was spycraft fan who dreamed of sharing wine with his handler

Jerry Dunleavy October 13, 07:00 AM October 13, 07:00 AM

The nuclear engineer accused of attempting to sell nuclear submarine secrets to what he thought was a foreign nation was a spycraft aficionado who fantasized about sharing a bottle of wine with his handler like “two old friends.”

In a plot intercepted by the FBI, Jonathan Toebbe, who worked for the Navy’s Nuclear Propulsion Program, and his wife Diana have been hit with espionage-related charges following alleged efforts to sell secrets to an unnamed foreign government in exchange for thousands of dollars in cryptocurrency.

The Justice Department said Toebbe’s top-secret security clearance was renewed just days before he mailed the first package to “Country 1.” He had worked for the “Nuclear Reactors” program since 2012. Before that, he was a physics teacher.

His social media persona points to an interest in spycraft, as well as possible concerns about his finances.

Among his favorite books on Facebook was a tome called Cryptonomicon, a 1999 work of fiction about a WWII naval captain on a secret team trying to keep the Nazis from knowing the Allies have broken their Enigma code and his modern-day crypto-hacker grandson. Toebbe also “liked” TV shows, including the animated spy spoof Archer and the James Bond film Casino Royale.

The Justice Department said that in December 2020, the FBI’s attaché in “Country 1” obtained a package that representatives had received by mail in April 2020 from “an unidentified subject in an attempt to establish a covert relationship.” The sender, revealed to be Toebbe, wrote: “I apologize for this poor translation into your language. Please forward this letter to your military intelligence agency. I believe this information will be of great value to your nation. This is not a hoax.”

The encryption keys in the SD card included “Alice Hill — Public Key” and “Bob Burns — Private Key.” Alice and Bob are placeholders in cryptography.


The FBI observed Toebbe use a dead drop in Virginia on Aug. 28, with an SD card hidden in a chewing gum package. The bureau sent Toebbe $70,000 in cryptocurrency and received a decryption key.

“I am painfully aware that I lack training in observation and blending in,” a lengthy note from “Alice” read. “One day, when it is safe, perhaps two old friends will have a chance to stumble into each other at a cafe, share a bottle of wine and laugh over stories of their shared exploits. A fine thought, but I agree that our mutual need for security may make that impossible. Whether we meet or no, I will always remember your bravery in serving your country and your commitment to helping me.”

Toebbe’s LinkedIn profile also hinted at possible financial troubles. A post in August 2017 on teachers led him to comment: “The notion that good teachers ‘aren’t inordinately responsive to financial incentives’ is a comforting fiction for administrators and policy-makers. But the crushing realities of student debt, healthcare, childcare, and etc. make ordinate responders of us all.”

The FBI made contact with Toebbe after Christmas 2020 via ProtonMail.

In May, “Alice” said he would be in Washington, D.C., over Memorial Day and asked the presumed foreign country to leave a signal visible in its embassy to ensure he was on the right path. The FBI placed a signal “at a location associated with Country 1,” according to DOJ.

The FBI sent $10,000 in “Moreno” cryptocurrency to Toebbe as “good faith” payment in June.

On June 26, the FBI said Toebbe carried out a dead drop in West Virginia while his wife acted as a lookout, and the bureau recovered a 16GB SD card “wrapped in plastic and placed between two slices of bread on a half of a peanut butter sandwich.” The FBI sent Toebbe $20,000 in cryptocurrency, and he emailed the undercover agent a decryption key. On July 31, the bureau recovered a 32GB SD card that Toebbe left at a dead drop location, this time “hidden in a sealed Band-Aid wrapper.”

In the July note, Toebbe offered tens of thousands of pages of documents and proposed a deal totaling $5 million.


Toebbe’s social media account appears to indicate he was left-leaning. Meanwhile, his wife and co-conspirator was openly left-wing on social media.

After Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016, she retweeted multiple #TheResistance hashtags in January 2017, including a post that said, “America is temporarily out of order. We hope to restore service as quickly as possible. In the meantime, we in The Resistance movement join hands with those around the world who realize we are one people. May the forces of good be with us. #TheResistance.”

She ended up following several “alternative,” “rogue,” or “Resistance” Twitter accounts, including “Rogue POTUS Staff.”

She also made her views clear on Facebook, posting a “Women Can Stop Trump” profile picture of herself in October 2016 and using a profile picture featuring the Hillary Clinton campaign symbol in November 2016. She posted a photo of the transgender flag in October 2018 and switched her cover photo to the Women’s March in May 2019. Her profile picture endorsed Black Lives Matter in June 2020, and she switched it to a graphic of Ruth Bader Ginsburg with text — “Fight for the things you care about.” — in September 2020.

Posts on her Facebook and Instagram feature pictures of her and her family and costumed trips to Renaissance festivals.

Diana Toebbe was a history and English teacher at the Key School in Annapolis, where the New York Times said she often spoke about her passion for knitting. She got her Ph.D. in anthropology from Emory University, where she did her dissertation on skeletal collections.

One 2019 graduate of the Key School told the outlet that Diana Toebbe was a strong feminist, noting she mentioned several times that she considered moving to Australia after Trump’s election. She has been placed on indefinite leave.

On Tuesday, they both made their first appearance in court, remanded in U.S. Marshals’ custody, and warned they may face life in prison.

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