Peanut butter and ProtonMail: US charges underscore evolution of espionage in digital age

Like Russia's use of social media to influence American voters and Chinese recruiting strategies, espionage has gone fully digital.
U.S. Navy Los Angeles class submarine slipping out to sea under cover of fog in San Francisco Bay, California, USA. Historical photo from 1996. (Getty Images)

It’s a case so outlandish that the renowned espionage writer John le Carré would have rejected the idea as too difficult to believe.

The U.S. Department of Justice on Saturday unsealed charges against a Navy engineer who allegedly tried passing classified information about nuclear submarines in exchange for a payment.

The engineer is accused of working with his wife to transmit military secrets to a removable memory card, hiding the device in a peanut butter sandwich and then passing it to an individual they believed was an agent for an unnamed foreign government. In fact, the agent worked for the FBI.

The complaint against the couple, Jonathan and Diana Toebbe, reads like a modern day spy thriller, complete with details about protected national secrets, cryptocurrency and the use of encrypted email in an attempt to secure sensitive communications. Like the Russian government’s weaponization of social media to influence American voters, and Chinese spies’ reliance on LinkedIn to recruit sources in the U.S., the case is the latest representation of how traditional espionage tactics — dead drops and undercover identities — are upended by innocuous tools that are part of daily life.


“[Jonathan] Toebbe worked with and had access to information concerning naval nuclear propulsion including information related to military sensitive design elements, operating parameters, and performance characteristics of the reactors for nuclear powered warships,” the Justice Department said in a statement.

For nearly a year, according to the Justice Department, Toebbe, using the code name Alice, passed national security-related data to a contact who he knew as Bob. Toebbe made contact with the foreign country by mailing a package that included information meant to help establish a secret association. The FBI ultimately obtained the package, posing as a foreign agent for roughly a year and sending Toebbe upwards of $30,000 in cryptocurrency.

The relationship relied in part on the use of ProtonMail, an email service that encrypts email content and user data before a message is sent, rendering it especially difficult to intercept.

When “Bob,” an undercover FBI agent, suggested a face-to-face meeting to exchange sensitive data for money with Toebbe’s “Alice,” the Naval engineer rejected the idea as too risky, according to a complaint.

“I propose exchanging gifts electronically,” he wrote. “I can upload documents to a secure cloud storage account, encrypted with the key I have provided for you. You can send me a suitable gift in Monero cryptocurrency to an address I will provide.”


The arrangement — while not unique in the current world of spy vs. spy — represents a remarkable update from the kinds of espionage cases that once made headlines. Toebbe allegedly sought payment in Monero, a virtual currency that aims to safeguard privacy more efficiently than bitcoin.

U.S. security officials previously convicted of espionage like Robert Hanssen, the FBI counterintelligence supervisor who provided information to the Russian government, organized payment through a series of complicated dead-drops in the Washington area, a technique that helped expose his work to investigators. (The FBI paid a dejected Russian intelligence officer $7 million to provide details on Hanssen, and arrested the bureau official following a dead-drop in Virginia.)

The latest charges arrive at a curious time for the U.S. intelligence community.

Top Central Intelligence Agency officials in recent weeks have warned CIA stations around the world about an uptick in the number of U.S. informants who were captured, killed or turned by other governments, a troubling sign for operatives trying to become accustomed to function against facial recognition tools, artificial intelligence technologies and hacking, as the New York Times reported.

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