U.S. Navy nuclear engineer charged in espionage plot

https://www.stripes.com/theaters/us/2021-10-10/navy-nuclear-engineer-sharing-secrets-foreign-country-espionage-3192515.html

A Navy nuclear engineer and his wife have been charged with repeatedly trying to pass secrets about U.S. nuclear submarines to a foreign country, in an alleged espionage plot discovered by the FBI, according to court documents.

Authorities say Jonathan Toebbe, who has a top-secret clearance, “has passed, and continues to pass, Restricted Data as defined by the Atomic Energy Act … to a foreign government …

According to another article Toebbe held a TS DOE Q clearance.

When you read between the lines on this story a couple things jump out. The country involved is not China or Russia and is in some way an ally. Also, I think we now have a case of espionage motivated simply by political disaffection (see link to UK DM story). While ideology has been a motivation in espionage cases in the past (e.g., Christopher Boyce, Rosenbergs, etc.) I don’t think politics has been a central motivation is past American espionage cases. Nb: the Reality Winner disclosure of classified information did not involve a foreign country (espionage).

This is a good lesson for NATSEC investigators— as well as every citizen— that we have to be on guard not to fall into the addiction of our times, the addiction of politics (or alcohol, gambling, drugs, money, sex, et al. :grinning:).

That guy is not very bright. His tradecraft is pathetic.

Based on FBI Special Agent Justin Van Tromp’s affidavit in support of the criminal complaint, it is clear that Jonathan Toebbe’s overarching motivation was money (not political disaffection). See the full affidavit here:

Toebbe’s idea of only using anonymized and encrypted electronic channels to communicate was an excellent one, and had he insisted on it, rather than agreeing to a dead-drop, he likely would never have been identified and apprehended. Ultimately, it appears that his greed overcame his better judgment.

I disagree that greed was a factor. I’ll leave it at that.

Also, there is zero chance that these two would’ve gotten away with the espionage because the country that they provided the classified info to simply forwarded the info to the U.S. government and also cooperated with the FBI in snaring them (e.g., allowing the FBI to fly a secret signal flag on their embassy building).

I don’t think this was an exclusively financially motivated escapade as well. He and his wife easily made about 250K. It almost seems like it was a fun game he was excited to play. He and his wife were Renaissance faire aficionados…perhaps this was just a thrilling weekend couples activity??? Any thoughts on what country was involved? My guess is Taiwan or France.

Better source:
https://www.justice.gov/opa/press-release/file/1440946/download

That’s a very good ROI by that FBI agent. His explication of the technology involved was first-rate.

The husband, Jonathan Toebbe, has degrees in math and physics from Emory Univ. and the wife, Diana Toebbe, was working on her doctorate in anthropology there. Both spent some time as teachers in Denver before moving to Maryland. Jonathan was 5 years active duty in the USN (and currently in the USNR?).

It doesn’t say where in Jefferson Country, WV the dead drops were made. I’m very familiar with this area and my guess is Charles Town or Shepherdstown. Most likely the latter because “ALICE” seemed to be the one orchestrating this part.

Anyway, I find this stuff intriguing. It seems rare nowadays. I think technology has ruined good old-fashioned espionage with its secret phrases (“ The eagle has landed”), signal markers, and dead drops.

My guess is Harpers Ferry National Park area. HF has become a big tourist attraction since Covid and the John Brown mini series. Still no country guesses? I’m intrigued as well.

Definitely not Israel, based on wife’s woke FB profile. Turkey maybe? Not too friendly or too confrontational but moving toward the latter.

Thought experiment.

Imagine if Jonathan Toebbe were up for his clearance renewal and you were his investigator.

Do you think you’d be able to detect anything while questioning him in person— particularly when you got to the foreign or counterintelligence questions?
What about if you’re doing the interview over the phone?
Which method would you have a better chance of uncovering something and instinctively ask more questions?

I think we all know intuitively that in-person would be orders of magnitude better. And Toebbe would be a whole lot more nervous about an in-person interview. And while he might not blurt out something during the interview, the fear instilled in him by someone looking him in the eye and asking him about foreign contacts and espionage might lead to him reaching a breaking point and saying/doing something stupid.

While rare cases make bad precedent (to paraphrase O.W. Holmes), it is cases like this Toebbe one where you see how much preferable in-person interviews are.

I am definitely a proponent for ESI’s in person but I don’t think his being afraid or nervous during an in person interview would have made any difference. The important thing is that he has recently had his update and he should now be on record as answering all the counterintelligence questions in the negative. Lying under oath is just another way to prosecute him.

1 Like

I have not read all the reports on this guy. Is there any reason to believe he was interviewed for his re-investigation? Or was it likely that he was placed into CE with no interview? Seems like the vast majority of reinvestigations these days do not include an interview as a result of CE. Would also be interesting to know how many active spies have been detected based off of information obtained during a reinvestigation.

That’s a very good point Cal, and something I had never considered in regard to CE.

I can recall reading in biographies of Ames, Hanssen, et al., that these spies (traitors) really fretted and freaked out if/when they had a security clearance re-investigation interview and poly coming up. Some of them even sought advice from their foreign handlers for pointers on how to handle the interview questions and poly. In a nutshell, the stress made them undergo major behavioral changes which was apparent to friends and coworkers.

Many people pooh-pooh the perfunctory re-investigation process and view background investigators and the process as being on-par with TSA screeners. No doubt this attitude was behind the impetus to create CE. But imagine for a moment that you were actually trying to bring a weapon onto a plane and had the weapon secreted in your bag. No matter who confident you were in your plans, and how convinced you were of the incompetence of the average TSA screener, when you get to that checkpoint you will view even the most buffoonish TSA screener as a 10-foot tall Colombo.* Now, multiply that by 10^n and you’d start to get the level of panic of a spy would have in facing the much longer, extensive, and opaque security clearance investigation or re-investigation process.

*And we will never know the deterrence factor in having a TSA rather than an Argenbright Security.

Yeah, it’s clear that in-person Subject interviews are the sine qua non of security clearance investigations and things like phone interviews and CE are bad ideas.

Security clearance re-investigations and polygraph screenings have an abysmally poor track record at identifying actual spies.