An intriguing though fragmentary espionage story made headlines eleven days ago and then disappeared abruptly, suggesting that some folks in high places in the government and media were fearing that the full tale would prove to be embarrassing to someone. I am referring to the report of the arrest made by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service of an American government employee who worked in nuclear engineering. Jonathan Toebbe and his wife Diana apparently had stolen highly sensitive information on nuclear propulsion systems and the stealth hull designs of the next generation U.S. Navy Virginia class attack submarine fleet and had been caught after several times seeking to sell their wares to what they thought to be a foreign power.
Two days after the arrest, the Toebbes appeared in court in Martinsburg West Virginia and were ordered to remain in jail as they were considered a flight risk. So far, so good but the interesting part of the story is that the intended purchaser was apparently not obvious adversaries like Russia and China, but rather an ostensibly friendly country, which was not identified. The Toebbes clearly thought they were offering their technology to a foreign country’s intelligence service, one presumes, but they were in fact in contact with the FBI, which allowed them to arrange dead drops in Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia and paid them to continue providing new material on small digital computer cards before closing the trap and making the arrest.
And how the FBI learned about the Toebbes is another interesting part of the story. Apparently in April 2020 the couple had mailed a package containing manuals and other material relating to the propulsion systems to a foreign country, together with an offer to establish a covert relationship in return for payment in cryptocurrency. The package somehow wound up in someone’s hands in the foreign postal system or government and eventually made its way anonymously eight months later to the FBI legal attaché at the U.S. Embassy. It included a note that read “Please forward this letter to your military intelligence agency. I believe this information will be of great value to your nation. This is not a hoax.”
One has to suspect that the material actually had reached the foreign intelligence agency that it had been sent to where it was considered too hot to handle, so it was forwarded on to the U.S. officials anonymously to get rid of it.
The documents involved relating to the arrest and the alleged crimes committed by the Toebbes are heavily redacted, far beyond the identity of the foreign country involved, so it is somewhat difficult to reconstruct exactly what happened. Toebbe, a former naval officer, has held senior positions in the Navy bureaucracy, up to and including serving on the staff of the Chief of Naval Operations, which would have given him access to beyond top secret codeworded details of next level submarine technology. It is information that is only shared with Great Britain and, in a recent policy move, with Australia, both U.S. allies that will deploy nuclear powered submarines in the Pacific to deter China. The documents the Toebbes reportedly stole and tried to sell were produced by a little-known U.S. government facility the Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory in West Mifflin Pennsylvania.
One of the most interesting aspects of the case is the question of who might have been the potential buyer of the stolen technology. Building nuclear submarines is not exactly high on the priority list of any but a small handful of countries that have global or regional pretensions that might be supported by having cruise missile nuclear weapons capable ships that can stay under water for months at a time. Germany could conceivably build such vessels but has no defensive needs that require such an expedient. So could France, presumably. Japan and South Korea are perhaps more plausible recipients, particularly as they have the industrial and scientific bases that could benefit from and use the technology if they chose to go that route, and both are threatened by China.
And, of course, there is always Israel, which frequently tends to come up when there are stories of espionage committed by a friendly country against the United States. In this case, of course, the Israelis, if targeted by the Toebbes, apparently did not seek the approach and that may be why the information sent in the package possibly to Mossad was sat on for over six months. Nevertheless, there is a definite resemblance to what the Toebbes set out to do with the Jonathan Pollard case of the 1980s. Pollard, a non-practicing Jew and Navy analyst, stole a whole roomful of top-secret defense materials. He was in it for the money and tried to sell the intelligence to several foreign governments before he “got religion” and found a buyer in Israel. He became the most damaging spy in the history of the United States. After being caught, tried, convicted and spending twenty-eight years in federal prison, he was released on parole but not allowed to travel. The Donald Trump administration did not renew the parole in 2020 and he moved to Israel, where he was met at the airport by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who presented him with his citizenship papers. He is regarded as a hero in Israel and he has a city square named after him. So, the question becomes, was history repeating itself with the Toebbes?
Against that speculation is the fact that Israel already has an established nuclear deterrent more than capable of eliminating its regional enemies if needs be. It has no use for an expensive submarine with abilities that are not required in the goldfish bowl of the Middle East, unless of course if the United States were to gift Jerusalem with such a new military bauble. It would also have no need to get involved in something that might ultimately have tremendous blowback if exposed, potentially severely damaging the relationship with Washington.
My own theory is that Israel was indeed the target of the Toebbes’ scheme. It is widely known that the Jewish state is the most aggressive and successful “friendly” nation spying on Washington and it is backed up by a host of wealthy and powerful co-religionists who work hard to both “help” it and cover-up for its crimes. I suspect that if Israeli intelligence were interested in collecting on the submarine technology they would eschew potential screwballs like the Toebbes and instead work their other sources in Washington to collect the information independently, accounting for the time lag between the mailing of the package and the forwarding of it to the FBI. When Pollard was active, his Israeli Embassy handler would sometimes ask him for specific files by number, indicating they had other high level agents at work, and it must be assumed that that is still the case. Far too many in Congress and the Pentagon are very happy to have a lunch with that nice young man or woman from the Israeli Embassy and maybe share a secret or two.
But, that speculation aside, perhaps the strongest indicator that Israel was the planned recipient of what the Toebbe’s stole is the silence over who the target might have been. When the media and the federal government are silent on a foreign policy or national security issue it often means that Israel is involved, directly or indirectly. Will we the American public ever learn “who was it?” Probably not. Just one more secret.