The bizarre case of the Toebbes: more Mr. Bean than Mr. Bond

Suburban couple dreamed of riches and adventure in spy caper but now face life in prison.


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The Toebbes
Diana and Jonathan Toebbe
(Justice Department)

Around the same time that the much-delayed James Bond flick No Time To Die hit movie theaters, a developing spy scandal here in America reminded us how far real life espionage is from Hollywood’s romantic notions.

On October 9, Jonathan Toebbe, a Navy nuclear engineer, and his wife, Diana, were arrested by the FBI, accused of plotting to sell US military secrets to a foreign intelligence agency.

However, based on what we know of the case so far, the couple’s efforts at espionage were so amateurish and incompetent that they would suit a slapstick spy comedy far better than a serious story featuring Ian Fleming’s suave hero.

With the Toebbes set to face their first court hearing this week we may learn more about what could have motivated a seemingly unremarkable citizen and his spouse to think they could commit treason and get away with it.

The stakes are high. If convicted, the couple, who have two small children, could face a sentence of life in prison without parole.

The really remarkable thing, however, based on the case information that has been disclosed, is just how bungling and inept Toebbe, 42, and his wife, 45, were in their scheme.

Thanks to the Justice Department’s 23-page criminal complaint filed earlier this month we now have an outline of the alleged plot as well as some of the sorry details. Many of those details are downright cringeworthy, such as a thumb drive tucked inside half a peanut butter sandwich. On other occasions, Toebbe stashed a drive in a pack of chewing gum, or covered it in a Band-Aid wrapper in a refrigerator bag, the complaint reveals.

These “packages” were used for so-called dead drops, the method used by spies for decades to exchange information. While Jonathan Toebbe would carefully place the materials in the dead drop locations, his wife, a schoolteacher by profession, would act as lookout, the complaint alleges.

The Toebbes launched their scheme back in April 2020 when Jonathan contacted an official at a foreign government. He sent the official a package in the mail with a note saying he could provide them with information about nuclear submarines.

As an expert with security clearance working in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, he claimed to have access to information on nuclear-propulsion systems used in submarines.

As far as we know, he barely hid his identity during this first outreach, which is extraordinary – and extraordinarily reckless for someone trying to embark on a spying career.

We do not know which foreign government that Toebbe first contacted but we do know that it was a US ally and that the official he targeted immediately alerted his superiors who quickly decided to cooperate with US authorities. There has been speculation that the country to which Jonathan Toebbe tried to sell US secrets was France.

At any rate, once the foreign target had alerted the FBI, the fate of the Toebbes was effectively sealed.

What followed was a monthslong period of surveillance and entrapment in which the FBI assumed the identity of the foreign buyer of naval intelligence and painstakingly built their case against the couple.

At the heart of the case was the propulsion technology that Toebbe was trying to sell. It is one of the closest held US military secrets and a core element of a recent military agreement reached between the US, UK and Australia.

Toebbe smuggled documents out of work a few pages at a time to get past checkpoints, the complaint alleges.

“I was extremely careful to gather the files I possess slowly and naturally in the routine of my job, so nobody would suspect my plan,” he wrote in a note to his supposed conspirator, a person who was in reality an FBI agent.

Jonathan Toebbe, in particular, was a voracious consumer of spy movies and books and appears to have believed that he could have learned his craft solely from such material.

As for motive: money was definitely part of the equation, but the couple’s thirst for adventure and excitement seems to have figured prominently too.

As the months wore on, Toebbe appeared to grow ever more comfortable with his activities and the relationship with the person he thought was his counterpart on the other side.

“One day, when it is safe, perhaps two old friends will have a chance to stumble into each other at a cafe, share a bottle of wine and laugh over stories of their shared exploits,” he wrote in a note to the agent.

Then, of course, the Toebbes’ spy dream came crashing down around their ears.

On the morning of October 9, they hired a babysitter to watch their two children and drove to a prearranged drop spot in rural West Virginia, where FBI agents—who’d followed them there from the start of their trip—swooped and made the arrest. The game was up.

Over the short time that the Toebbes lived out their fantasies of spying, they are alleged to have handed over more than 11,000 pages of highly classified information in exchange for a total of $100,000 in crypto payments. It is clear that they believed much more money was to come.

It remains to be seen what kind of defense, if any, the Toebbes mount. They have already declared themselves unable to afford legal representation and are relying on court appointed public defenders.

What does seem obvious though is that they were a couple way out of their depth. A pair of amateurs trying to make waves in a brutal and unforgiving trade.

In all likelihood, they will pay a terrible price for their foolishness.

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25 days ago

First of all, they are educated enough to know better,…. So there’s something else to look into, and that is their reading materials, and movies collection. a small percentage of people have grown up watching hollywood movies to the point of losing touch with reality. May I add that the small percentage THAT I am referring to IS THE ACTUAL actors themselves.

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