They seemed to live the most ordinary life, Jonathan and Diana Toebbe: professional, at ease, without ostentation.
Their red brick home in a posh part of Annapolis, Maryland – a coastal town of Romanesque churches and fine art facades – contained the convenient mess that comes with two children and two pit bulls, Sasha and Franklin, whose names are emblazoned on the front welcome mat.
The streets of the neighborhood are lined with cypresses. Oyster shells are scattered in the grass of a nearby park, Quiet Waters. The courtyards are well mowed and the grass smells sweet. The United States Naval Academy is nearby, as is a yacht harbor.
The local peace was broken on October 9, when federal agents disembarked at the Toebbe home, from which they had followed the couple in Jefferson County, West Virginia.
This is where Mr. Toebbe, 42, and his wife of 45 were attempting to commit treason, according to the U.S. government.
The Maryland couple have been accused of attempting to sell military secrets to a foreign government, for which they could face life imprisonment if found guilty.
As a preliminary hearing opens on Toebbes’ accusations in West Virginia on Wednesday, the extraordinary national security case has raised questions about the motives of a seemingly unassuming couple who would be willing to risk it all in the belief they could make it as super-spies.
The espionage attempts began in April 2020 when, according to the Justice Department, Mr. Toebbe, a United States Navy employee, contacted an official who worked for a foreign government by sending them a package in the mail with a note in which he said he could provide them with information on nuclear submarines.
As a security cleared expert working at the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, he said he had access to information on nuclear propulsion systems used in submarines.
The government appears to have friendly relations with the United States: Officials working for the foreign government collaborated with US investigators as they set a trap for Toebbe. This seemed to indicate that the foreign government was an ally, like France, and not Russia or China. But no one confirmed which country was involved.
The FBI took over the package a few months later, in December, and sent its agents posing as foreign officials to contact Mr. Toebbe, saying they were interested in what he could offer.
Thus began the couple’s many months of misadventure, with Mr. Toebbe leaving confidential files on SD memory cards at points used by spies to deliver intelligence materials, known as dead drops. His wife acted as a lookout, according to government allegations.
The propulsion technology it was rumored to be trying to sell is one of the strongest military secrets and was at the heart of a high-risk deal, which the US and UK had recently reached with Australia. According to investigators, Mr. Toebbe smuggled jobless documents a few pages at a time to get past the checkpoints.
“I have been extremely careful to collect the files I possess slowly and naturally in the routine of my work, so no one would suspect my plan,” he wrote in a note to his alleged conspirator.
Clumsy efforts to deliver the goods included hiding an SD card in a peanut butter half sandwich, or hidden in a packet of chewing gum, or covered with a patch wrap in a refrigerator bag, court documents said.
For the peanut butter sandwich card, Mr Toebbe received $ 20,000 (£ 14,500) in cryptocurrency.
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Mr. Toebbe was skittish at first, but eventually seemed to feel comfortable with the “foreign official” he was selling to, unaware it was the FBI.
He even seemed to grow fond of them, writing in a note: “Someday, when it is safe, maybe two old friends will have a chance to meet in a cafe, share a bottle of wine and laugh at stories of their shared exploits.”
When they were arrested last week, substantial paperwork had been collected, documenting their espionage efforts.
The mystery man
A week after their arrest, everything at the Toebbe house was as they had left it: the ceiling fan still spinning in the basement, a half-set knitting, a sock, on the living room table. The neighbors were in shock.
Many have wondered how a couple who seemed to have everything to themselves could now be accused of trying to sell some of the nation’s military secrets to a foreign nation.
According to neighbors, while the couple weren’t particularly sociable, they weren’t reserved either.
Mr. Toebbe had an interest in medieval weapons and was active in a local chapter of an enthusiastic organization, the Society for Historic Swordsmanship. Ms. Toebbe, 45, earned a PhD from Emory University in Atlanta and taught at a private school.
While blending is a desirable trait for a spy, she wasn’t up to par: she had bright purple hair that made her easily recognizable, a neighbor said. “He had to be a spy and not get noticed.”
Money and motive
With all their personal and professional success, why would the Toebbes do this?
It’s a bit of a mystery, said David Charney, a psychiatrist based in Alexandria, Virginia who has spent decades studying espionage cases. But, Charney said, there are common themes in many similar cases.
Often, individuals are a bundle of conflicting impulses, Charney said, usually involving a desire for money or perhaps a thirst for revenge. Some are driven by the desire to prove that, however average they may appear, they are in fact extraordinary individuals, with a great secret.
The officials who work for the intelligence services and study the psychology of betrayal have invented an acronym to describe those reasons, MICE: money, ideology, compromise and ego. According to officials, these are the reasons people commit treason.
Prosecutors indicated that Mr. Toebbe wanted money. According to an affidavit drawn up by federal investigators, he asked for $ 100,000, paid in cryptocurrency, in exchange for his nuclear secrets.
And there are suggestions that he and his wife may have been having financial problems. A magistrate judge, Robert Trumble, reviewed their financial statements and said they may have court-appointed lawyers.
This could mean they weren’t rich, since they couldn’t afford their own lawyers, but they weren’t destitute either.
She is now represented by two attorneys, Edward MacMahon of Middleburg, Virginia, and Barry Beck of Martinsburg. Mr. Toebbe’s attorney is Nicholas Compton, an assistant federal defense attorney in Martinsburg. The lawyers did not respond to requests for interviews.
However, money would appear to be only part of the story, Mr. Charney said, given, as he pointed out, that the Toebbe appeared to be relatively well off.
“You look at their life, and you see these pictures of a nice house, and you say, ‘Wow, it’s not that bad.’ But no matter what you think. If they feel they are not up to it, this can eat them, “he said.
Even spy veterans have wondered how Mr. Toebbe could have thought his tricks would work. His techniques were unsophisticated and highlight the broader question of why an employee, without any field training, would undertake such a risky operation.
“He’s an amateur spy,” says Jack Devine, a former senior CIA operations officer. “He had no training. They watch a couple of TV shows and don’t appreciate what’s needed.”
“If you rely on spy movies to provide your craft, you better be really good or lucky,” said Devine.
Mr. Toebbe, presumably, was neither.
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