WASHINGTON — On July 28, Diana Toebbe posted a Fb message on the lookout for a babysitter to deal with her kids early on the approaching Saturday morning for 5 to 6 hours.
Later the publish, seen solely to associates, 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 had been being watched by the F.B.I. as they left their residence in Annapolis, Md. And the bureau’s brokers continued to look at in Pennsylvania as Jonathan Toebbe faraway from his shorts pocket a 32-gigabyte reminiscence card hidden in a sealed Band-Assist 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 look in federal courtroom in West Virginia on Tuesday. They may face fees 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 making an attempt 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 pupil in nuclear physics who was commissioned within the Navy as an officer and skilled in submarine propulsion. He continued as a civilian within the Navy after ending his army service, thought-about by some a plum task 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 dad and mom, she was vulnerable 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 may simply inform she was insanely good,” mentioned 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 acquired alongside along with her very nicely.”
When Mr. Martien went off to Williams School, he introduced alongside a toy squid that Ms. Toebbe had knitted. Like different Key graduates, Mr. Martien described her as a robust feminist and really liberal.
She was stunned by President Donald J. Trump’s 2016 election, he mentioned, and talked about a number of occasions that she was contemplating transferring to Australia.
“She mentioned she couldn’t stand the present state of politics and truly had discovered some job alternatives over there,” he mentioned.
On social media platforms, Ms. Toebbe shared pictures of her canines, her kids, meals cooking on the range, a household trip and selfies — abnormal scenes of an abnormal life, one far completely different than the beginner 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 had been reluctant to reveal themselves in an in-person assembly, in response to the narrative specified by courtroom paperwork by the F.B.I. However their obvious need for cryptocurrency funds led them to conform to the undercover operative’s demand they deposit info in a useless drop location — a choice that finally uncovered their id to the F.B.I.
Proof within the courtroom paperwork suggests the international nation the Toebbes allegedly tried to promote the knowledge to was an ally, or a minimum of one thing of a companion, because it cooperated with the F.B.I. because the sting operation unfolded. Whereas some consultants speculated France may have been the goal, French officers mentioned they weren’t concerned within the incident.
The listening to on Tuesday might be brief. As far as the federal government is aware of, neither Jonathan nor Diana Toebbe has a lawyer. Prosecutors requested the courtroom on Monday to carry Mr. Toebbe moderately than granting him bail, saying he may face life in jail and was a flight risk. The Justice of the Peace decide may additionally set a listening to date for the couple’s continued detention.
Public data searches turned up no indicators of monetary misery that would 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 title in army 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 change for $100,000 within the cryptocurrency.
“Please bear in mind I’m risking my life to your profit and I’ve taken step one. Please assist me belief you absolutely,” the word 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 good friend prepares makes me very susceptible,” the word from “Alice” mentioned, in response to the affidavit. “If different events are observing the situation, I might be unable to detect them. I’m not an expert, and wouldn’t have a workforce supporting me.”
The word went on to suggest that the author would select a drop location for the encrypted recordsdata. The F.B.I. brokers responded that they’d 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 conform to go to a location of your selecting,” the response from “Alice” mentioned. “I have to contemplate the likelihood that I’m speaking with an adversary who has intercepted my first message and is making an attempt to reveal me.”
The author subsequent proposed that the nation present reassurance by sending a sign from its complicated in Washington over Memorial Day weekend.
Writing from an encrypted Proton mail account, “Alice” mentioned the sign had been obtained, and agreed to drop the fabric on the location chosen by the undercover operative — a mistake in tradecraft, some consultants mentioned.
“It was considerably stunning that somebody who has studied submarine warfare follows the F.B.I.’s path to floor for these supposedly clandestine drop offs,” mentioned Michael Atkinson, a former inspector basic for the intelligence neighborhood.
The willingness on the a part of the nation to convey the unspecified sign suggests its cooperation with the USA all through the investigation. Mr. Atkinson mentioned 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 companion on the regulation agency Crowell & Moring, mentioned an identical false flag operation by the F.B.I. involving a authorities scientist making an attempt to promote secrets and techniques to an ally resulted in a jail sentence of 13 years after a plea discount.
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 in opposition to 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 trainer who beloved to cheer on her college students within the faculty’s cornhole tournaments.
Matthew Nespole, the pinnacle of the Key Faculty, mentioned he was “shocked and appalled” to be taught of the fees in opposition to the Toebbes and that the college “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.