WASHINGTON — On July 28, Diana Toebbe posted a Fb message searching for a babysitter to care for her kids early on the approaching Saturday morning for 5 to 6 hours.
Later the publish, seen solely to buddies, was up to date with the phrase “*FOUND*.” And on that Saturday, Ms. Toebbe accompanied her husband, Jonathan, to south-central Pennsylvania.
Unbeknown to Ms. Toebbe, she and her husband have been being watched by the F.B.I. as they left their dwelling in Annapolis, Md. And the bureau’s brokers continued to observe in Pennsylvania as Jonathan Toebbe faraway from his shorts pocket a 32-gigabyte reminiscence card hidden in a sealed Band-Support wrapper, which he then, in response to court papers, positioned in a container arrange by an undercover F.B.I. operative.
The Toebbes, accused by the U.S. authorities of trying to sell some of America’s most closely guarded submarine propulsion secrets to a international authorities, are scheduled to seem in federal court docket in West Virginia on Tuesday. They may face expenses associated to violating the Atomic Vitality Act’s prohibition on sharing nuclear know-how.
For now, the massive questions surrounding the couple — what nation they’re accused of attempting to promote the nuclear secrets and techniques to, and what motivated them to take the danger — stay unanswered.
Mr. Toebbe was described by acquaintances as a diligent and arranged grad scholar in nuclear physics who was commissioned within the Navy as an officer and professional in submarine propulsion. He continued as a civilian within the Navy after ending his navy service, thought of by some a plum project for essentially the most gifted nuclear physicists.
Ms. Toebbe was a 10-year veteran of the Key Faculty, a progressive personal faculty in Annapolis, the place she taught historical past and English. There, in response to mother and father, she was liable to speaking about her Ph.D. in anthropology from Emory College and her love of knitting. She was a revered adviser, each formally and informally, on the faculty.
“You might simply inform she was insanely sensible,” stated Craig Martien, 20, a 2019 graduate of Key Faculty who labored carefully with Ms. Toebbe on the yearbook and an after-school anthropology membership. “She was very pleasant and down-to-earth, and I received alongside together with her very effectively.”
When Mr. Martien went off to Williams Faculty, he introduced alongside a toy squid that Ms. Toebbe had knitted. Like different Key graduates, Mr. Martien described her as a powerful feminist and really liberal.
She was shocked by President Donald J. Trump’s 2016 election, he stated, and talked about a number of occasions that she was contemplating shifting to Australia.
“She stated she couldn’t stand the present state of politics and truly had discovered some job alternatives over there,” he stated.
On social media platforms, Ms. Toebbe shared images of her canines, her kids, meals cooking on the range, a household trip and selfies — bizarre scenes of an bizarre life, one far completely different than the novice cloak-and-dagger act portrayed within the F.B.I. affidavit.
Having made contact with the as-yet undisclosed different nation about offering submarine secrets and techniques, the Toebbes have been reluctant to show themselves in an in-person assembly, in response to the narrative specified by court docket paperwork by the F.B.I. However their obvious want for cryptocurrency funds led them to comply with the undercover operative’s demand they deposit info in a useless drop location — a call that finally uncovered their id to the F.B.I.
Proof within the court docket paperwork suggests the international nation the Toebbes allegedly tried to promote the knowledge to was an ally, or at the very least one thing of a associate, because it cooperated with the F.B.I. because the sting operation unfolded. Whereas some consultants speculated France might have been the goal, French officers stated they weren’t concerned within the incident.
The listening to on Tuesday will probably be quick. As far as the federal government is aware of, neither Jonathan nor Diana Toebbe has a lawyer. Prosecutors requested the court docket on Monday to carry Mr. Toebbe relatively than granting him bail, saying he might face life in jail and was a flight risk. The Justice of the Peace choose might additionally set a listening to date for the couple’s continued detention.
Public data searches turned up no indicators of monetary misery that might present a motivation for them to attempt to promote American secrets and techniques.
But the F.B.I. affidavit portrayed the couple as keen to take dangers for the promise of funds in a cryptocurrency known as Monero.
In February, F.B.I. brokers, posing as a consultant of the international nation, proposed an in-person assembly. The response, which was signed “Alice,” a standard placeholder identify in navy cryptography, wrote that “head to head conferences are very dangerous for me, as I’m positive you perceive,” in response to the affidavit. The author then proposed passing info electronically in trade for $100,000 within the cryptocurrency.
“Please keep in mind I’m risking my life to your profit and I’ve taken step one. Please assist me belief you totally,” the notice to the undercover F.B.I. brokers learn.
The F.B.I. brokers then pressed for a impartial drop location. The response got here a number of days later: “I’m involved that utilizing a useless drop location your pal prepares makes me very weak,” the notice from “Alice” stated, in response to the affidavit. “If different events are observing the situation, I will probably be unable to detect them. I’m not knowledgeable, and shouldn’t have a staff supporting me.”
The notice went on to suggest that the author would select a drop location for the encrypted recordsdata. The F.B.I. brokers responded that they might give first $10,000 then $20,000 in cryptocurrency at a drop location of their selecting.
“I’m sorry to be so cussed and untrusting, however I can not comply with go to a location of your selecting,” the response from “Alice” stated. “I have to think about the likelihood that I’m speaking with an adversary who has intercepted my first message and is trying to show me.”
The author subsequent proposed that the nation present reassurance by sending a sign from its advanced in Washington over Memorial Day weekend.
Writing from an encrypted Proton mail account, “Alice” stated the sign had been acquired, and agreed to drop the fabric on the location chosen by the undercover operative — a mistake in tradecraft, some consultants stated.
“It was considerably stunning that somebody who has studied submarine warfare follows the F.B.I.’s course to floor for these supposedly clandestine drop offs,” stated Michael Atkinson, a former inspector common for the intelligence neighborhood.
The willingness on the a part of the nation to convey the unspecified sign suggests its cooperation with america all through the investigation. Mr. Atkinson stated it was very uncommon for a international nation to permit its embassy or different facility for use to ship a sign to a suspect being pursued by the F.B.I.
Mr. Atkinson, now a associate on the legislation agency Crowell & Moring, stated an analogous false flag operation by the F.B.I. involving a authorities scientist attempting to promote secrets and techniques to an ally resulted in a jail sentence of 13 years after a plea cut price.
On the Key Faculty, the place Ms. Toebbe taught, and of their Annapolis neighborhood, colleagues, college students and neighbors tried to course of the arrest of the couple and the accusations towards them.
Luke Koerschner, 20, a 2019 Key Faculty graduate now at Michigan State College, was in Ms. Toebbe’s advisory group for 4 years. He described her as “very pleasant and welcoming,” an outgoing instructor who liked to cheer on her college students within the faculty’s cornhole tournaments.
Matthew Nespole, the top of the Key Faculty, stated he was “shocked and appalled” to be taught of the fees towards the Toebbes and that the varsity “helps the administration of justice by the F.B.I. and NCIS, and can cooperate with the investigation.” The Key Faculty positioned Ms. Toebbe on depart indefinitely.
Julian E. Barnes reported from Washington, and Brenda Wintrode and JoAnna Daemmrich from Annapolis, Md. Kitty Bennett contributed analysis. David E. Sanger contributed reporting from Washington.