Money was likely not the only motivation behind a Maryland couple’s reported decision to try to sell sensitive U.S. submarine secrets to a foreign government, a leading expert in the psychology of espionage told The Washington Times.
Dr. David Charney, a Northern Virginia psychiatrist who has worked extensively with members of the intelligence community, also said husband and wife spy duos like those outlined in the FBI case are unusual.
“I look askance at the simplistic attribution, always, to money being the explanation,” said Dr. Charney. “You always have to take it further.”
Dr. Charney provided insights as Navy nuclear engineer Jonathan Toebbe and his schoolteacher wife, Diana, made their first appearance in federal court since their arrest Saturday in West Virginia.
The couple are accused of passing sensitive information about U.S. submarines to agents they thought were working for a foreign government but who were in fact undercover FBI agents.
Magistrate Judge Robert Trumble ordered the couple to remain behind bars pending a detention hearing Friday.
The 23-page affidavit released over the weekend described a months-long FBI sting operation after an undisclosed foreign government alerted the U.S. that Mr. Toebbe sent copies of submarine documents with a promise for more in exchange for cryptocurrency deposits.
While at face value, the episode appears to be an open-and-shut case involving information in exchange for money, Dr. Charney, who reviewed the affidavit but is not directly involved in the case, said he is certain that what motivated the couple, as with most spies, goes beyond money alone.
By all appearances, the Toebbe’s lived a comfortable life. Both had seemingly fulfilling careers and lived with their two children on a quiet middle-class street in Annapolis.
Dr. Charney said this does not always tell the whole story.
“You may look at somebody’s life as you will if you look at the pictures of the Toebbes online, and you would say, ‘Jeez, it looks pretty good,’” he said. “And even the story of his career seems pretty good, as does his wife’s. Well, then it doesn’t matter what you think. It matters what the person thinks within their now heart and mind as to how things have gone.”
Several key elements stood out in the Toebbe case.
First, husband and wife spy duos are unusual and Mrs. Toebbe’s involvement raises several questions, the psychologist said.
“It’s not unheard of, but it’s quite unusual, said Dr. Charney, who has served on defense teams for several accused spies and consults for federal agencies and private businesses on insider threats and counterintelligence.
Mrs. Toebbe, a private school teacher, is alleged to have conspired with her husband and served as a “lookout” on several of the dead drops, according to prosecutors.
If Mrs. Toebbe was involved to the degree that is reported in the complaint, it would point to an even more complex shared motivation, he said.
“Anytime you have two people that are carrying off a more complex scheme, they’ve got to have a shared outlook about things,” he said. “And that is not clear to me what that could be right now.”
Second, the case reportedly involves a high level of premeditation. Mr. Toebbe is accused of collecting sensitive information for years before releasing it to the foreign government.
While Mr. Toebbe was an amateur and had no training in spy tradecraft, Dr. Charney said, he operated with a level of sophistication beyond what he might expect.
According to the affidavit, in April 2020, Mr. Toebbe, a nuclear propulsion specialist for the Navy, sent a package containing sensitive “U.S. Navy documents,” including “technical details, operations manuals, performance reports” to a foreign government. The package also contained a letter from Mr. Toebbe in which he asked that the recipient forward the information to the country’s “military intelligence agency” and provided instructions for communicating via an encrypted platform.
In December, the foreign government handed the package over to an FBI attache in the country. There are just over 60 countries that work with the FBI in this capacity, and the fact that they turned the material over suggests that the country Mr. Toebbe contacted was not a direct adversary of the U.S.
Later that month, the FBI initiated contact with Mr. Toebbe while posing as a representative from the foreign government. Over several months, undercover agents coordinated with Mr. Toebbe to conduct several exchanges of classified information, including documents related to nuclear reactors on board the U.S. Navy’s advanced $3.5 billion Virginia-class submarines.
In several exchanges with the FBI posing as foreign spy handlers, Mr. Toebbe ruminated that he was set up.
“I must consider the possibility that I am communicating with an adversary who has intercepted my first message and is attempting to expose me,” he said in one encrypted communique. “Would not such an adversary wish me to go to a place of his choosing, knowing that an amateur will be unlikely to detect his surveillance?”
The exchange was telling, Dr. Charney said.
“He knew a fair amount more than any average person would know about secret ways of communicating,” he said. “But he wasn’t quite as smart as he thought he was. There was this kind of semi-naivety in how he operated. Which is interesting.”
The FBI, for example, has not said what specific country Mr. Toebbe intended to contact or whether Mr. Toebbe has been passing the information to other countries that did not alert the FBI.
Understanding the motivation behind the betrayal will be key in preventing further leaks, said Dr. Charney, though he added that counterintelligence efforts often focus on catching rather than preventing spies.
“If you don’t understand the complexity, the actual complexity of what motivates people, how are you going to build something as effective as prevention?”