December 5, 2021
Shown are the mugshots of Diana and Johnathan Toebbe.

Submarine secrets: Recapping the Toebbe family case history

A naval nuclear engineer and his teacher wife were indicted by a grand jury on Tuesday, October 19 on two charges of communication of restricted data and one charge of conspiracy to communicate restricted data.

The accused are Jonathan and Diana Toebbe, who allegedly worked together using Jonathan’s Pentagon security clearance to gain access to data on nuclear submarine technology and then attempted to sell the data to a foreign government on April 1, 2021. The couple has pleaded not guilty to all charges. 

When the couple used communication of restricted data, they believed they were in communication with a representative of a foreign government, but were in fact in contact with an undercover FBI agent. 

At first, the Toebbes sent a package to the embassy of the country anonymously, containing navy secrets and instructions on how to use encryption for future communication. The country in question held onto the material for nine months before consulting the FBI who then began communications with the couple. 

Starting off, the exchange between Toebbe and the FBI was rife with contention as Toebbe struggled to maintain anonymity and to keep transactions totally digital using cryptocurrency as payment, according to an affidavit detailing the exchanges between the agent and the couple. 

As the exchange continued, the agent became more and more insistent on establishing a neutral location for a “dead drop,” where a gift would be left for Toebbe that he could retrieve before depositing the intelligence. There was resistance at first but eventually Toebbe convinced the agent to set off a signal at a building the country owned to confirm the identity of the agent, which was set off on May 31. 

Now feeling more confident, Toebbe revealed his location and Jonathan and Diana traveled together to a location in Jefferson County, W. Va, where Jonathan placed an SD card concealed in half a peanut butter and jelly sandwich while Diana watched. 

This continued to take place over four months with more cards hidden in other common objects such as band-aid boxes and gum wrappers.  Eventually the Toebbes became anxious about their situation and began asking for refuge in the country they believed they were negotiating with and speaking about dropping everything and leaving. This of course never happened. 

The motivations for these actions are still unclear, as well as the target country is unknown. It is believed to be an American ally due to the government’s collaboration with FBI investigators and their ownership of a building in America. Text conversations between Jonathan and Diana also revealed that the country in question did not speak English, as Jonathan lamented earning less money in a country whose language he did not speak. Those familiar with the family recounted financial struggles and political motivations as being possible factors. 

Jonathan worked in a PH.D. program with a small annual stipend which he abandoned for a more lucrative navy career. While they eventually became more stable, there were bouts of instability. Both Jonathan and Diana were upset about a lack of income, with Diana making comments suggesting dissatisfaction with her salary as a teacher. 

Diana also became expressly political after the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, though she was a longtime progressive activist. She also expressed a desire to flee the country, particularly in the event of a Trump reelection

A search of the home by FBI investigators uncovered the financial gift given to the Toebbes in the form of $11,300, a cryptocurrency wallet, shredded documents, and passports for their two children, suggesting that they were preparing to flee the country and getting ready to destroy evidence. 

The couple was arrested quickly after a dead drop over fears that their anxiety would prompt them to find another buyer, though it is uncertain who else the Toebbes would have contacted. It is likely that the couple will face life in prison if found guilty. 

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