A couple of underwater spies tried to sell nuclear secrets to Brazil

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WASHINGTON — In 2020, an American naval engineer and his wife made the fateful decision to try to sell some of America’s best-kept military secrets, the technology behind the nuclear reactors that power America’s submarine fleet.

Then the couple faced another big choice: which foreign government should they try to peddle the stolen secrets to?

The engineer seemed to believe that soliciting American adversaries like Russia or China was, morally, a bridge too far, according to text messages released to the court. Instead, Jonathan and Diana Toebbe thought of a country rich enough to buy the secrets, not hostile to the United States and, above all, increasingly eager to acquire the very technology they were selling: Brazil.

The identity of the nation approached by the Toebbes has so far remained protected by federal prosecutors and other government officials. But, according to a senior Brazilian official and others briefed on the investigation, Mr Toebbe approached Brazil nearly two years ago with an offer of thousands of pages of classified documents about the nuclear reactors he had. stolen from the US Navy Yard in Washington over the course of several years.

The plan backfired almost as soon as it began. After Mr. Toebbe sent a letter offering the secrets to Brazil’s military intelligence agency in April 2020, Brazilian officials delivered the letter to the FBI’s legal attache in the country.

Then, beginning in December 2020, an undercover FBI agent posed as a Brazilian official to gain Mr. Toebbe’s trust and persuade him to file documents at a location chosen by investigators. Mr Toebbe eventually agreed to provide documents and offered technical assistance to Brazil’s nuclear submarine program, using classified information he had learned during his years working for the US Navy.

Mr and Mrs Toebbe, who lived in Annapolis, Maryland, were arrested in October and pleaded guilty to espionage charges last month. He faces up to 17 and a half years in prison; she faces up to three.

Brazil has continued to struggle with its submarine nuclear reactor program and has approached Russia to seek a partnership on the nuclear reactor design, said a Russian military official who, like all those interviewed for this article, said spoken on condition of anonymity because of the classified material and the delicate diplomacy involved.

Last month, just a week before Russia invaded Ukraine, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro even mentioned the technology during a trip to Moscow.

Mr. Bolsonaro has tried to maintain a positive relationship with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, even amid his assaults on Ukraine. Analysts in Brazil believe that Mr. Bolsonaro, a former army captain, partly hopes to keep the door open for a partnership on nuclear reactor technology.

The Brazilian president’s trip to Russia has drawn criticism from the Biden administration. Asked about Brazil’s efforts to acquire Russian nuclear reactor technology, a senior administration official said Tuesday that seeking to acquire Russian military technology “is a bad bet for any country.”

In some ways, Brazil was an odd choice for the Toebbes. While Brazil and the United States have a limited military relationship, Mr. Toebbe’s outreach came during a period of some of the closest Brazil-U.S. relations in decades, so that Mr. Bolsonaro and former President Donald J. Trump were strengthening the alliance of countries.

Credit…West Virginia Regional Prison and Correctional Facilities Authority, via Associated Press

While the US government initially wanted to release the name of the country the Toebbes tried to sell the secrets to, Brazilian officials insisted that their cooperation not be publicly disclosed, according to a person familiar with the investigation.

The White House, Justice Department and FBI declined to comment. US officials have repeatedly said the couple did not attempt to sell the secrets to the United States’ main adversaries, or its closest NATO allies, such as France.

In cryptic messages from 2019 recovered by the FBI, Mr. Toebbe and Ms. Toebbe discussed what appear to be different plans to sell the secrets. A plan, Mr. Toebbe wrote, was not even considered. Another plan, presumably to sell to a friendlier country, was also moot for Mr. Toebbe, but Mrs. Toebbe pushed it.

“Nor is it morally defensible,” Mr. Toebbe wrote, according to a transcript of the court proceedings. “We convinced ourselves that it was fine, but it really isn’t either, is it?”

Ms Toebbe replied: “I have no problem with that. I feel no loyalty to abstractions.

Mr Toebbe’s public defender said government rules prevented him from answering questions. A lawyer for Ms Toebbe declined to discuss the case ahead of her sentencing, currently set for August. She repeatedly said in court that the government presented selected messages out of context.

Only a few countries were not openly hostile to the United States and could use the technology and designs Mr. Toebbe was to sell. Only a country that could build a nuclear reactor and was willing to invest billions in a fleet of nuclear submarines would be willing to funnel the hundreds of thousands of dollars in cryptocurrency it sought.

Brazil began working on the development of nuclear submarines in 1978, originally motivated by its rivalry with Argentina. In 2008, under the administration of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil reinvested in an effort to create a nuclear submarine, to better patrol and protect its Exclusive Economic Zone in the Atlantic Ocean, a source of fossil fuels and other resources.

The country aims to launch its first nuclear-powered submarine in 2029, as part of a $7.2 billion submarine program. Brazil is building four more traditional submarines with help from France, but it has tried to develop a fifth nuclear reactor-powered submarine on its own – a project it has struggled with.

As a result, Mr. Toebbe’s expertise on how to make nuclear reactors even quieter and harder to detect, as well as other Virginia-class submarine design elements, would have been invaluable. enormous value for Brazil.

While the Brazilian embassy declined to comment, a senior Brazilian official said the country cooperated with US investigators because of the partnership of the two nations and the friendly relationship between Brazilian intelligence and the CIA.

If Brazil had been caught trying to buy US secrets, relations between the two countries, including intelligence sharing, could have been jeopardized.

Instead, Brazilian officials worked with the FBI after Mr. Toebbe was initially reluctant to deposit the classified information at a prearranged secret location called a dead drop.

“I fear that the use of a dead drop location prepared by your friend will leave me very vulnerable,” Mr. Toebbe wrote, according to court records. “For now, I have to consider the possibility that you are not the person I hope you are.”

To trick Mr. Toebbe into thinking he was speaking with a Brazilian official, the undercover officer told him to look for a signal placed in a window of a Brazilian government building in Washington over Memorial Day weekend. Last year. Such an operation could only have been carried out with the cooperation of Brazilian officials in Washington.

After seeing the sign, Mr. Toebbe agreed to drop a sample of the nuclear secrets he had stolen from the Navy hidden in a peanut butter sandwich in West Virginia, setting off a chain of events culminating in the the couple were arrested in October.

Julian E. Barnes and Adam Goldman reported from Washington, André Spigariol reported from Brasília, Brazil, and Jack Nicas reported from Rio de Janeiro. Ernesto Londono in Rio de Janeiro contributed reporting.

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