James Bond makes it look so easy. Zooming around in sports cars with an array of techno-gadgets at his fingertips, he outwits his adversaries and saves the world. He does all of this while wearing tailor-made suits and sipping martinis. After defeating every foe, he jets off to a villa in the French Riviera, where he humbly accepts accolades from Queen and country.
Easy, right? As it turns out, the real world of spy craft is a lot more complicated and much less glamourous. Explosive wristwatches? X-Ray glasses? This month, we learned that true spies use Band-Aid wrappers and … yes, peanut butter sandwiches. Also, the locations leave something to be desired. I have nothing against Jefferson County, West Virginia, but I doubt you’ll find 007 swaggering around there. What about riding off into the sunset? Well, in South Central Pennsylvania, the real spies get caught. And then they go to court.
The 18-month espionage career of Jonathan Toebbe
Whether you are part of The Great Resignation or just simply bored, consider a move to the exciting world of espionage. The question is: how to get your foot in the door when you don’t even own a $1,500 pair of John Lobb Becketts?
Here’s one idea. You could start by mailing a sample package of information you’ve stolen from the U.S. Navy to a foreign emissary. According to a 23-page criminal complaint, that’s exactly how Jonathan Toebbe, 42, kickstarted his side hustle as an international man of mystery. Mr. Toebbe worked as an engineer on Virginia-class nuclear submarines and held a Top-Secret Security Clearance from the Department of Defense, as well as a Q Clearance from the Department of Energy. Last April, Toebbe mailed a cache of sensitive documents along with instructions to “please forward this letter to your military intelligence agency.” He sent this package just a few days after his Top-Secret clearance was renewed. (The exact country involved in Toebbe’s plan remains unknown – referred to in legal documents simply as “COUNTRY1.” Some people speculate the country is France.)
The package Toebbe sent to COUNTRY1 contained Restricted Data subject to the Atomic Energy Act. Among other things, this Act prohibits transmitting Restricted Data to any person with intent to injure the United States or provide an advantage to a foreign nation. While it’s unclear what motivated Toebbe, money appears to be a driving force. In subsequent communications, the Naval Engineer would ask for $100,000 “to prove to me that you are not an unwelcome third party looking to make trouble for me.” Eventually, he would request $5 million in exchange for the entire trove of documents in his possession.
Instead of forwarding the letter to their military intelligence agency, as requested, the smart folks from COUNTRY1 handed it over to the FBI.
ALICE in Wonderland
Every secret agent needs a great code name. During World War II, Sir William Stephenson went by “Intrepid.” Natasha Romanoff is “Black Widow.” And, of course, James Bond goes by the mysterious “007.” For his new career, Jonathan Toebbe chose the code name “ALICE.” This appears to be a not-so-subtle nod to fictional characters – ALICE and BOB – that have become something of a trope in cryptography circles online.
After receiving the sample information from COUNTRY1, the FBI appointed Special Agent Justin Van Tromp to initiate contact with “ALICE.” Using end-to-end encrypted emails, the FBI (aka, “BOB”) began corresponding with Toebbe (aka, “ALICE.”) During these messages, ALICE promised to send much more information than was contained in his sample data – even going so far as to provide a detailed list of more than 11,000 pages of Restricted Data he’d been accumulating over the years. Not to worry, Toebbe promised his new best friend, as the information was slowly collected to avoid attracting attention and “smuggled past security checkpoints a few pages at a time.” Further, he offered to lend his own expertise as a nuclear engineer to answer any questions and help fill-in gaps wherever classified information was missing or unavailable.
Although we cannot know for sure, it’s possible that Toebbe’s data extended beyond the purview of the Atomic Energy Act. For example, the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) regulates submersible vessels and related hardware in USML Category XX. The Export Administration Regulations (EAR) controls a variety of equipment, materials and technology that are used in nuclear reactors and nuclear power plants. The FBI’s criminal compliant only references the Atomic Energy Act, so it’s likely that Toebbe’s actions were limited only to this data. However, the full extent of his knowledge and stolen information could be subject to other export control regulations.
As their discussions progressed, ALICE requested a good-faith payment of $10,000 from the FBI agent posing as a representative from COUNTRY1. (He had originally requested a “gift” of $100,000 – 10 times that amount – but ultimately settled for the lesser figure.) Toebbe also requested that his foreign contact send him a signal in Washington, D.C. over the Memorial Day weekend. He wrote: “I could plan to visit Washington D.C. over the Memorial Day weekend. I would just be another tourist in the crowd. Perhaps you could fly a signal flag on your roof? Something easily observable from the street.”
The assumption here is that Toebbe was referring to a foreign embassy in D.C. Presumably, the FBI worked with the embassy to send a signal from “our main building observable from the street.” On May 31, 2021, Toebbe confirmed through emails that he had received the signal and was ready to get down to spy business. A few days later, the FBI sent him $10,000 in cryptocurrency as a sign of good faith and trust.
The submarine sandwich with illegal ingredients
In June of this year, the FBI instructed its newest secret agent to service a dead drop location in Jefferson County, West Virginia – promising an additional $20,000 in cryptocurrency upon verification that the data was authentic and useful. The agents observed Jonathan Toebbe and his wife, Diane Toebbe, placing something at the location. What could it be? From the criminal complaint, it appears that Toebbe’s wife served as a “lookout” while Toebbe himself made the drop. Afterwards, the couple unsuccessfully attempted to perform countersurveillance activities in a more populated area near the drop zone. (This was unsuccessful because they were being watched by the FBI the entire time.)
After they departed, the FBI retrieved an SD card from the drop location. The card was wrapped in plastic and placed inside half of a peanut butter sandwich. An analysis of the SD card found that it contained numerous documents with military sensitive designs, operating guidelines and performance characteristics of Virginia-class nuclear submarines. (The same type of vessels that Toebbe worked on during his day job.) Two days after retrieving this file, the FBI paid ALICE $20,000 as promised.
Toebbe seems to have been pleased with this successful operation. He resumed communications with BOB, suggesting ideas to improve their tradecraft and explaining signals he would use in future communications should he find himself “under duress.” They even discussed a far-fetched plan whereby Toebbe and his family might need help being extracted to a safe third country on short notice.
Following this exchange, ALICE performed another dead drop in South-Central Pennsylvania. This time, he chose to conceal the data in a sealed Band-Aid wrapper inside a Ziploc bag. Later, in August 2021, the FBI observed Toebbe placing information at a location in Eastern Virginia. Those electronic files were hidden inside a chewing gum package. For this information he received $70,000 in cryptocurrency.
A deemed export occurs when U.S.-controlled information or technology is passed from one person to a foreign national – even if that transfer occurs within the United States. The U.S. regulations control the flow of information in the same way they control the exports of physical goods. Deemed exports can occur in a myriad of ways – through email, file sharing/access, conversations … and even, for example, by placing an SD card inside a sandwich and handing it to a foreign person. By participating in these activities, Toebbe and his wife believed they were sharing sensitive Restricted Data with representatives from a foreign country. This is the very definition of a deemed export. Toebbe acknowledged he was doing so at considerable risk.
At the same time, he seems to also imagine himself as one of those dashing characters in a James Bond film … going so far as to tell BOB:
“Thank you for your partnership as well my friend. 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. Whether we meet or no [sic], I will always remember your bravery in serving your country and your commitment to helping me.”
“From prison, with love.” A would-be spy is caught.
At this point, one almost begins to feel sorry for Toebbe. That is, until you remember that he is willfully disclosing sensitive information about American nuclear-powered cruise missile fast attack submarines that cost $3 billion each and utilize the latest stealth, intelligence gathering and weapons systems on the planet. This is not Hollywood fiction. It’s real life, and real lives are at stake.
On October 8 of this year, the FBI filed a criminal complaint in U.S. District Court seeking arrest warrants for Jonathan Toebbe and Diane Toebbe. The next day, the couple was arrested in West Virginia while attempting to make their fourth drop. If convicted, they could face life in prison.
This is how the story ends for one Naval Engineer turned would-be spy. It’s a long story, at times both comical and sad. In his recent movies, James Bond is portrayed as more of a troubled soul. He wrestles with regrets and loss from his past while trying to carry out his duties. There are moments when he seems conflicted and confused. Perhaps this is one thing – maybe the only thing – that our fictional spy shares in common with his real-life counterpart.
Tom Reynolds is the President of Export Solutions, a consultancy firm which specializes in helping companies with import/export compliance.