WASHINGTON – On July 28, Diana Tobbe posted on Facebook that she was looking for a nanny to take care of her children early Saturday morning for five to six hours.
Later, the message, available only to friends, was updated with the word “* FOUND *”. And that Saturday Ms. Tobbe accompanied her husband, Jonathan, to south-central Pennsylvania.
Unbeknownst to Ms. Tobbe, the FBI followed her and her husband as they left their home in Annapolis, Maryland. And bureau agents continued to watch in Pennsylvania as Jonathan Tobbe retrieves a hidden 32GB memory card from his shorts pocket. in a sealed adhesive tape wrap, which he then, according to court documents, placed in a container installed by an undercover FBI agent.
The Toebbes family, accused by the US government of trying to sell some of the most closely guarded submarine engine secrets to a foreign government, is due to appear in federal court in West Virginia on Tuesday. They will be charged with violating the Atomic Energy Law, which prohibits the exchange of nuclear know-how.
For now, the big questions surrounding the couple – which country are they accused of trying to sell nuclear secrets and what prompted them to take the risk – remain unanswered.
Acquaintances described Mr. Tobbe as a diligent and organized graduate student in nuclear physics who was accepted into the Navy as an officer and submarine movement specialist. After completing military service, he continued his service in the Navy, which some considered an excellent assignment for the most talented nuclear physicists.
Ms. Tobbe spent 10 years at Key School, a progressive private school in Annapolis, where she taught history and English. There, according to her parents, she was inclined to talk about her doctoral dissertation. in anthropology from Emory University and her love of knitting. She was a respected counselor at the school, both formally and informally.
“You could just say she was insanely smart,” said Craig Martien, 20, a 2019 Key School graduate who worked closely with Ms. Tobbe on the post-class anthropology yearbook and anthropology circle. “She was very friendly and down-to-earth and I got along very well with her.”
When Mr. Martien went to Williams College, he brought a toy squid that Ms. Tobbe tied up. Like other Key alumni, Mr Martienne described her as a strong feminist and very liberal.
According to him, she was overwhelmed by Trump’s election in 2016 and mentioned several times that she was considering moving to Australia.
“She said she couldn’t stand the current state of politics and actually found several job opportunities there,” he said.
On social media, Ms Tobbe shared photos of her dogs, children, food being cooked on the stove, family vacations and selfies – common scenes from everyday life that are very different from the amateur cloak and dagger act depicted in the FBI affidavit.
Having made contact with an as yet undisclosed other country for the release of submarine secrets, Tobbs did not want to reveal himself in person, according to the narrative set out in the FBI court documents. they agreed to a covert operative’s demand to keep the information at a standstill – a decision that ultimately revealed their identity to the FBI.
Evidence in court documents suggests that the foreign state that Tobbs allegedly tried to sell the information to was an ally, or at least some kind of partner, as it collaborated with the FBI on the raid. While some experts speculated that France may have been the target, French officials said they were not involved in the incident.
The hearing on Tuesday will be short. As far as the government knows, neither Jonathan nor Diana Tobbe has a lawyer. On Monday, prosecutors asked the court to detain Mr. Tobbe rather than release him on bail, saying he faces life in prison and is in danger of fleeing. The Justice of the Peace can also set a date for a hearing on the couple’s continued detention.
Searches on public records have found no sign of financial distress to motivate them to try to sell American secrets.
However, the FBI affidavit depicts the couple as willing to take the risk to promise payments in a cryptocurrency called Monero.
In February, FBI agents, posing as a representative of a foreign state, offered to meet in person. The response, which was signed “Alice”, a common name in military cryptography, read that “face to face meetings are very risky for me, as I’m sure you understand,” according to the affidavit. The author then proposed to transfer information electronically in exchange for $ 100,000 in cryptocurrency.
“Please remember that I risk my life for you, and I took the first step. Please help me to fully trust you, ”the note reads to secret FBI agents.
The FBI agents then demanded a neutral landing site. The answer came a few days later: “I am concerned that the use of a dead end that your friend is preparing makes me very vulnerable,” says a note from Alice, according to the affidavit. “If other stakeholders are watching the site, I won’t be able to locate them. I’m not a professional and I don’t have a team to support me. “
The note went on to suggest that the writer choose where to drop the encrypted files. The FBI agents responded that they would transfer first $ 10,000 and then $ 20,000 in cryptocurrency at their chosen location.
“I am sorry that I am so stubborn and distrustful, but I cannot agree to go to a place of your choice,” reads Alice’s response. “I have to consider the possibility that I am communicating with an adversary who intercepted my first message and is trying to expose me.”
The writer then suggested that the country calm down by sending a signal from its Washington DC compound on Memorial Day weekend.
In a letter from Proton’s encrypted mailbox, “Alice” indicated that the signal had been received and agreed to drop the material at a location chosen by the undercover agent, which some experts believed was a craft error.
“It was somewhat surprising that someone who studied submarine warfare was following the FBI’s instructions to surface for these supposedly clandestine landings,” said Michael Atkinson, a former inspector general of the intelligence community.
The country’s willingness to transmit a vague signal presupposes its cooperation with the United States throughout the investigation. Mr. Atkinson said it is very unusual for a foreign country to allow its embassy or other facility to be used to send a signal to a suspect targeted by the FBI.
Mr Atkinson, now a partner at law firm Crowell & Moring, said a similar false-flagged FBI operation involving a state scientist trying to sell secrets to an ally led to a 13-year prison sentence following a plea bargain.
At the Key School, where Ms. Tobbe taught, and in their area in Annapolis, colleagues, students and neighbors tried to process the couple’s arrest and charges.
Luke Körschner, 20, Graduate of Key School 2019 at Michigan State University, served on Ms. Tobbe’s advisory group for four years. He described her as “very friendly and welcoming,” an outgoing teacher who loved to root for her students in school corn tournaments.
Matthew Nespol, head of Key School, said he was “shocked and appalled” to learn of the allegations against Toebbes, and that the school “supports the FBI and NCIS’s administration of justice and will cooperate with the investigation.” Key School sent Ms. Tobbe on indefinite leave.
Julian E. Barnes reported from Washington, while Brenda Wintrode and Joanna Dammrich from Annapolis, Maryland. Kitty bennett contributed to the research. David E. Sanger provided a reportage from Washington.