Feds: Maryland couple charged with selling nuclear secrets were prepared to flee U.S.

·6 min read

Prosecutors seeking to keep a Maryland teacher locked up on charges of looking to sell nuclear submarine secrets to a foreign government said on Wednesday that she and her husband, a nuclear engineer, appeared to have assembled cash, rubber gloves, a cryptocurrency wallet and their children’s passports to be ready to flee the country if their activities were exposed.

Diana and Jonathan Toebbe of Annapolis were arrested Oct. 9 following an elaborate FBI operation in which agents exchanged $100,000 in cryptocurrency for highly sensitive Navy documents that were hidden in memory cards secreted in Dentyne gum wrappers, a sandwich and even a Band-Aid stashed at drop sites in West Virginia, Virginia and Pennsylvania.

A bail hearing set for Wednesday for Jonathan Toebbe — a Navy veteran who later became a civilian employee at the Washington Navy Yard — proved to be something of a non-event, as he waived his right to challenge his detention.

However, lawyers for his wife, Diana Toebbe, sought her release — prompting a three-hour-long court session in which an FBI agent laid out new details about law enforcement’s efforts to track down the couple’s identities and the lengths to which the defendants went to conceal their activities.

Defense attorneys suggested there was no evidence that Diana Toebbe had access to the nuclear information her husband worked with, the cryptocurrency or his communications with what he apparently thought was a foreign government. But the prosecution and an FBI agent contended that there was ample evidence she was involved in his alleged scheme to try to sell thousands of pages of classified nuclear submarine information for a total of $5 million.

FBI Special Agent Peter Olinits said Diana Toebbe was present for three of four “dead drops” the FBI secretly observed in which her husband allegedly stashed information that he thought would later be recovered by a foreign government but was in fact part of an FBI sting.

“They were dressed like hikers. Diana had a camera — was taking photographs of the scenery,” Olinits said, describing an episode in June in West Virginia. “As the dead drop was serviced by Jonathan, Diana was right behind him within a meter away. She could probably almost touch him — basically keeping a lookout to make sure no one was coming up to either of them during that operation.”

The agent said the couple didn’t park near the drop site, but instead about a mile and a half away and walked to it. “That is indicative of a normal tradecraft of espionage suspects,” he told Magistrate Judge Robert Trumble.

The FBI later recovered an SD card from a sandwich at that spot and found that it contained restricted data about Virginia-class submarines. Despite the steps the couple took, the FBI photographed them and their license plate, which allowed law enforcement to confirm their identities.

Olinits said the agents also found a Signal chat on Jonathan Toebbe’s phone from 2019 in which the couple seemed to be discussing leaving the country. “I can’t believe the two of us wouldn’t be welcomed and rewarded by a foreign government,” Diana Toebbe wrote.

On cross-examination, a defense attorney for Diana Toebbe noted that the agent didn’t detail other messages in the chat, in which she expressed a dislike for former President Donald Trump.

“Mrs. Toebbe was not a fan of President Trump?” lawyer Edward MacMahon Jr. asked.

“I suppose,” Olinits replied. He later acknowledged he’d seen documents indicating that she talked of leaving the U.S. if Trump were re-elected.

“She’s not the only liberal that’s wanted to leave the country over politics,” MacMahon said.

The defense attorney also stressed that the FBI seemed to have passed up opportunities to get evidence that could have made clear whether Diana Toebbe was aware of her husband’s activities. MacMahon noted that the FBI often bugs espionage suspects’ homes and cars, using court orders, but didn’t here.

“You don’t have any idea what Mr. Toebbe told Mrs. Toebbe he was doing,” the defense lawyer added.

Assistant US. Attorney Jessica Smolar argued that releasing Diana Toebbe would be reckless because she could get onto the internet to destroy evidence or redirect cryptocurrency or try to flee the country. The prosecutor also seemed to downplay the anti-Trump aspect of the talk of leaving the U.S.

“The motivation for that is irrelevant,” Smolar said. “Whatever triggered her to aid and abet her husband with this very serious federal crime hasn’t gone away.”

The prosecutor also noted that Diana Toebbe faces a possible life sentence on the three felony charges against her, with sentencing guidelines likely to call for her to serve between 17.5 and 22 years in prison.

Trumble issued no immediate ruling on the detention issue, but ordered Diana Toebbe returned to jail to await his decision.

Some of the most tantalizing details revealed at the hearing involved how the couple came to the FBI’s attention. An FBI agent said the legal attache from a country that officials have not named in court reached out to the U.S. in early December to reveal that the nation’s officials had received a letter from someone using a common cryptography pseudonym who offered to sell details about U.S. nuclear subs. It was accompanied by documents the FBI found to be authentic and classified.

A quote Olinits read suggested that the country was one known to be pursuing a nuclear submarine program.

Please have your experts examine the documents,” the letter said, according to the FBI. “I think they would agree that your country’s attempt to develop a [redacted] would be greatly aided.”

The “volunteer” letter was written in English and the country’s language, Olinits said. That seemingly rules out Great Britain, which has nuclear subs already, and Australia, which is seeking them. More hostile countries that have or are seeking such technology seem unlikely to have cooperated by handing over such a letter to the U.S. That leaves a shorter list of potential recipients, including France, Brazil and Argentina.

Another possible clue: Jonathan Toebbe at one point suggested to his interlocutor that someday they might be able to meet face-to-face at a café and “share a bottle of wine,” according to the FBI.

While the country that came forward to share the letter with U.S. authorities might be lauded by many Americans, some of the timing around the case is less flattering. Olinits said the initial letter offering the nuclear secrets was postmarked in April, but the notification to the U.S. did not come until early December, weeks before a deadline the writer set to begin offering the information to other potential buyers.

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