WASHINGTON — In 2020, a United States 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 the U.S. submarine fleet.
Then the couple faced another important choice: Which foreign government should they try to pass on the stolen secrets?
The engineer seemed to believe that recruiting American opponents like Russia or China was morally a bridge too far, according to text messages released in court. Instead, Jonathan and Diana Toebbe thought of a country rich enough to buy the secrets, not hostile to the United States and, most importantly, increasingly eager to acquire the technology they were selling: Brazil.
The identity of the nation approached by de Toebbes has so far been obscured by federal prosecutors and other government officials. But according to a senior Brazilian official and other people briefed about the investigation, Mr. Toebbe approached Brazil nearly two years ago with an offer of thousands of pages of classified documents about nuclear reactors that he had stolen from the US Navy Yard in Washington over the course of of several years.
The plan failed almost as soon as it started. After Mr Toebbe sent a letter containing the secrets to Brazilian military intelligence in April 2020, Brazilian officials handed the letter to the FBI’s legal attaché in the country.
Then, from December 2020, an FBI undercover agent impersonated a Brazilian official to gain Mr. Toebbe’s trust and persuade him to deposit documents at a location chosen by investigators. mr. Toebbe eventually agreed to provide documents and provided technical assistance to Brazil’s nuclear submarine program, using classified information learned from years in 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 risks up to 17 and a half years in prison; she represents a maximum of three.
Brazil continues to struggle with its submarine nuclear reactor program and has approached Russia to seek a partnership for the nuclear reactor’s design, said a Russian military official who, like all the people interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the classified material and delicate diplomacy involved.
Last month, just a week before Russia invaded Ukraine, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro even brought up the technology during a trip to Moscow.
Mr. Bolsonaro has tried to maintain a positive relationship with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, even despite his aggression against Ukraine. Analysts in Brazil believe that Bolsonaro, a former army captain, hopes in part to keep the door open for a nuclear reactor technology partnership.
The Brazilian president’s trip to Russia has been criticized by the Biden administration. Asked about Brazil’s efforts to acquire Russian nuclear reactor technology, a senior government official said on Tuesday that trying 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 help came during a period of some of the closest Brazil-US relations in decades, when Mr. Bolsonaro and former President Donald J. Trump closed the alliance between the countries. strengthened.
Although the US government initially wanted to release the name of the country to which the Toebbes had tried to sell the secrets, Brazilian officials insisted that their cooperation would not be made public, according to a person familiar with the investigation.
The White House, the Justice Department and the FBI declined to comment. US officials have repeatedly said the pair had not attempted to sell the secrets to the United States’ main adversaries, nor to their closest NATO allies, such as France.
In 2019 encrypted messages recovered by the FBI, Mr. Toebbe and Ms. Toebbe discussed what appear to be different plans to sell the secrets. One plan, wrote Mr. Toebbe, was even wrong to consider. Another plan, presumably to sell to a kinder country, was also doubtful for Mr. Toebbe, but Mrs. Toebbe insisted.
“It’s also not morally defensible,” wrote Mr Toebbe, according to a transcript of the court proceeding. “We convinced ourselves it was good, but it’s not, right?”
Mrs. Toebbe replied: “I have no problem with it at all. I feel no loyalty to abstractions.”
The public defender of Mr. Toebbe has said government regulations prevent him from answering questions. A lawyer for Ms Toebbe declined to discuss the case ahead of her sentencing, which is currently set for August. She has repeatedly said in court that the government has taken selected messages out of context.
There were only a few countries that were not openly hostile to the United States and could take advantage of the technology and designs that Mr. Toebbe had for sale. Only a country capable of building a nuclear reactor and ready to invest billions in a nuclear submarine fleet would be willing to give it the hundreds of thousands of dollars in cryptocurrency it was seeking.
Brazil began developing nuclear submarines in 1978, originally motivated by its rivalry with Argentina. In 2008, Brazil, under the administration of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, reinvested in an effort to create a nuclear submarine, to better exploit its exclusive economic zone in the Atlantic Ocean, a source of fossil fuels and other resources. patrol and protect.
The country aims to launch its first nuclear-powered submarine in 2029, part of a $7.2 billion submarine program. Brazil is building four more traditional submarines with France’s help, but it has attempted to develop a fifth submarine powered by a nuclear reactor on its own — a project it has struggled with.
As a result, the expertise of Mr. Toebbe, to make nuclear reactors even quieter and harder to detect, as well as other design elements of Virginia-class submarines, have been of immense value to Brazil.
Although the Brazilian embassy declined to comment, a senior Brazilian official said the country had collaborated with US investigators because of the partnership between the two countries and the friendly relations between Brazilian intelligence and the CIA.
Had Brazil been caught buying American secrets, relations between the two countries, including intelligence-sharing, could have been jeopardized.
Instead, Brazilian officials teamed up with the FBI after Mr. Toebbe was initially hesitant to deposit the classified information in a prearranged secret location, known as a dead drop.
“I’m afraid using a dead drop location your friend is preparing makes me very vulnerable,” wrote Mr Toebbe, according to court records. “For now, I have to consider the possibility that you’re not the person I hope you are.”
To trick Mr. Toebbe into believing he was talking to a Brazilian official, the undercover officer told him to look for a signal posted in a window of a Brazilian government building in Washington last Memorial Day weekend. 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 stole from the Navy hidden in a peanut butter sandwich in West Virginia, triggering a series of events that culminated in the couple’s arrest in October.
Julian E. Barnes and Adam Goldman reported from Washington, André Spigariol reported from Brasília, Brazil, and Jack Nicas message from Rio de Janeiro. Ernesto London in Rio de Janeiro contributed reporting.