Over the weekend, Jonathan and Diana Toebbe were arrested by the FBI in West Virginia for trying to sell classified information on nuclear submarines to another country. What Toebbe didn’t know was that he was communicating with the FBI from the get-go.
The other country is identified in the criminal complaint only as COUNTRY1. Toebbe contacted them in April 2020, and they handed the material over to the US in December 2020. That suggests that COUNTRY1 examined what Toebbe had sent them, which wasn’t much, and that their investigative services conferred with their submarine experts and diplomats to make a decision.
The complaint contains excerpts from Toebbe’s communications with what he thought was COUNTRY1 but in fact was the FBI. The context of those communications suggest that COUNTRY1 had nuclear submarines of their own but wanted to upgrade. The design of the nuclear powerplant for US submarines is one of the most securely held secrets – the classification regime, Restricted Data, is the same as for nuclear weapons.
The possibilities for COUNTRY1 are thus limited to the UK, France, India, Russia, and China, which have nuclear submarines. Brazil, Israel, and South Korea have thought about nuclear-powered submarines. The emails indicate that Toebbe does not speak the language of COUNTRY1, which eliminates the UK, probably India, and possibly Israel. It’s easy to assume that the country must be friendly to the US, but the eight-month delay between COUNTRY1’s receipt of Toebbe’s offer and its notification of the US suggests that it could be a less friendly country deciding that dealing with Toebbe was not in its interests.
A number of tweets have assumed that France is the only country in which old friends drink wine at a café and thus focused on France as COUNTRY1. I would like to assure them that this happens in many countries.
Ian Stewart pointed out that COUNTRY1 need not be friendly, but might judge that this particular relationship would be worth less than what would be gained by ratting Toebbe out.
I would put France, Russia, and Israel at the top of my list of candidates for COUNTRY1. If it were France, that would explain some of France’s anger at being undercut in the submarine deal with Australia. We gave you Toebbe and then you steal our deal???
Toebbe went to enormous pains in setting up cryptography, dead drops, and Monero, a cryptocurrency exchange. He smuggled classified material out of his workplace, a few pages at a time, over years of employment. But he seems never to have considered that COUNTRY1 might find him less valuable than a relationship with the United States, whether that relationship was a one-time transaction or one that spanned years, perhaps centuries.
Photo: USS Key West, an American Los Angeles-class nuclear attack submarine