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Why Scientists Become Spies

Why Scientists Become Spies
Physicist Klaus Fuchs

Access to information only goes so far to explain the curious link between secrets and those who tell them.

By Rivka Galchen

On June 26, 2021, a forty-two-year-old naval nuclear engineer named Jonathan Toebbe set down, in a previously agreed-upon spot in Jefferson County, West Virginia, a plastic bag containing half of a peanut-butter sandwich. His wife, Diana Toebbe, a humanities teacher at a private school in Annapolis, stood nearby. Then the couple walked away through a crowded area, moving, it seemed, as if to spot anyone following them. Inside the peanut-butter sandwich, wrapped in plastic, was a blue SD card containing classified information about nuclear-propulsion systems for submarines. In July, Toebbe and his wife dropped another SD card containing more classified files; this one was hidden inside a sealed Band-Aid wrapper. Then, in August, a third SD card was delivered, inside a pack of gum, brand unknown to this writer.

According to court documents, the story of the drops began on April Fools’ Day, 2020. Someone, allegedly Toebbe operating under the pseudonym “Alice,” mailed a brown envelope containing a letter in which they offered to sell United States Navy information marked “confidential.” (Whom the note was addressed to has not been disclosed.) The letter noted, “I apologize for this poor translation into your language. Please forward this letter to your military intelligence agency. I believe this information will be of great value to your nation. This is not a hoax.”

For more than eight months, there was no response. Then, in December, 2020, a message appeared for Alice: “We received your letter. We want to work with you. It has been many months, so we need to know if you are still out there.”

A tea ceremony of trust-building ensued. There was talk of Monero cryptocurrency, a request for a reassuring display of a signal flag from the country’s embassy in Washington, D.C., and negotiations of suitable drop-off sites.

In June, 2021, Alice wrote, “Hiking and visiting historical sites is easier to explain than unexpected stops during rush hour if they take a special interest in me.” On an SD card received July 31st, asking for higher payment, Alice wrote, “As you noted in your letter, U.S. security forces are lazy. They also have limited budgets. Bait of $10,000 or $20,000 USD to catch an agent are within their normal activities. . . . Please do not be offended by this, but your generosity so far also matches exactly an adversaries [sic] likely play to entrap me.” A hundred thousand dollars quelled suspicions.

Then, on a Saturday afternoon in October, some thirty F.B.I. agents arrived at the Toebbes’ split-level home, in Annapolis. They spent about eight hours searching and photographing the house; they also arrested and charged the couple. (They have pleaded not guilty.) The foreign country that had received the documents had apparently forwarded them to the F.B.I.

If the allegations are true, Toebbe was not merely sharing information; he was sharing information that he understood. He wasn’t a George Smiley type of spy but, rather, a scientist spy, an amateur at spying but an expert at science. On the third SD card that Toebbe dropped, Alice wrote, “I was serious in my offer to help address questions from your technical experts.”

A regular submarine needs to resurface relatively often to refuel its batteries, but a submarine propelled by nuclear energy can remain underwater for months at a time. Nuclear submarines are also very quiet. These qualities make it easier for them to avoid detection. The U.S. and Britain have shared nuclear-submarine technology since 1958; only in September did they go on to share it with Australia, a move that was seen as a warning to China.

Scientists tend to have a strong belief in making knowledge available to all. Think of Diderot and d’Alembert’s encyclopedia of trade secrets, or of Linux. Even toward the end of the Manhattan Project, as it became clear that the U.S. was going to shut out its allies from ongoing atomic research, there was a strong sense among many of the project’s scientists that one nation alone should not hold such power. Niels Bohr, following the detonation of the atomic bombs, pushed for the science to be available internationally (but for the materials to be closely guarded). When the physicist Joseph Rotblat believed that the Germans were no longer pursuing an atomic bomb, he quit the Manhattan Project. Rotblat later co-founded the Pugwash Conferences, gatherings of scientists and political leaders aimed at peaceful resolutions to conflicts and the elimination of weapons of mass destruction; this work won him a Nobel Peace Prize. Other Manhattan Project scientists more straightforwardly shared the information, by working as spies.

I wanted to learn more about the history of scientists who were spies, so I called up the physicist Frank Close. He’s written two nonfiction books about scientist spies: “Trinity: The Treachery and Pursuit of the Most Dangerous Spy in History” and “Half-Life: The Divided Life of Bruno Pontecorvo, Physicist or Spy.” (Close has also written, rather enviably, “Nothing: A Very Short Introduction.”)

“Trinity” is about Klaus Fuchs. The subtitle belies the relatively sympathetic tone of the book, which Close said he aimed to write “as a scientist, not as a spy-chaser or commentator.” The reader meets Fuchs as a young man in Germany who is beaten up by fascist thugs because of his family’s politics. His sympathies for the Communist Party are formed when the Communists are the only group to run candidates against the Nazis in 1933. As a German refugee, Fuchs is interned first on the Isle of Man and later near Montreal. Fuchs is a gifted mathematician and physicist, studying even while interned, and he eventually works for and makes significant contributions to British atomic research and to the Manhattan Project, all while sharing vital information with the Soviet Union. The British intelligence agency M.I.5 investigated Fuchs for alleged communist activity, but claimed that it found nothing incriminating. According to Close, the agency dismissed the allegations because they had come from the Gestapo. Close said, “I imagine him hearing Winston Churchill on the radio at the time the non-aggression pact between Russia and the Nazis broke down, and Churchill saying that the Russians are now our allies and we will do everything we can to help them. And now, by total chance, Fuchs happens to find himself at the heart of a project that could define the nature of warfare.” On account of Fuchs, Stalin knew about the atomic bomb before Harry Truman did; President Franklin Roosevelt had thought the project too important a secret to share with his Vice-President.

“As a scientist on the project—the purpose was to get to the bomb technology before Hitler,” Close said. J. Robert Oppenheimer, who headed the Manhattan Project, insisted, against the wishes of military and political leaders, that an élite group of scientists working on different aspects of the bomb be allowed to exchange ideas freely. It was also seen as counterproductive to try to root out leftists, since so many of the scientists—Jewish refugees or survivors of the Great Depression—had leftist sympathies. “I ended up feeling surprised not that Fuchs had spied but that more people hadn’t done so,” Close said.

Close also highlighted the value that Fuchs placed on friendship: “I began to think he saw betraying your country for an ideal as O.K., but betraying your friends—he couldn’t handle that.” While in England, Fuchs had lived for some time with the family of the physicist Rudolf Peierls, with whom he had been collaborating scientifically. In 1950, when Fuchs was arrested, Peierls went to London to visit him, so that he would not feel he had been dropped. Fuchs confessed, and, while he was being held in jail before his trial, Genia Peierls, Rudolf’s wife, wrote Fuchs a letter telling him that she regarded him as one of the most decent men she had known. The letter “finally broke him,” Close said. After Fuchs was released from prison, nine years later, Rudolf Peierls offered to help set Fuchs up with a new job. “But Fuchs never responded,” Close said. “He had no contact with the Peierls family ever again in his whole life. And this was even though he had contact with other people, including the security officer who put him away. What that told me was that he felt intense shame at having betrayed his friends.”

Fuchs’s name came to the attention of M.I.5 after the British-American Venona project had cracked the Soviet code system. The Venona project also brought out the name of another scientist working on the Manhattan Project: Ted Hall. “Very few people have heard of Ted Hall, and that’s because he was a success,” Close said. “The whole point of being a successful spy is nobody ever knows what you’ve done.” Hall was a wunderkind who was recruited away from Harvard. He was possibly the youngest person to work on the Manhattan Project: at age eighteen, he led the team designing the implosion trigger of the bomb that was detonated at the Trinity site in New Mexico, the one that had the light of “a thousand suns,” according to Oppenheimer. Hall shared classified information with the Soviets in 1944, and again at later points. Unlike Fuchs, Hall denied everything; as a result, Hall was never prosecuted. (The British and American authorities were hesitant to reveal that they had cracked the Soviet code.) Hall wasn’t outed to the public as a scientist spy until 1995. Then in his seventies, Hall said, in a television interview, that he had started spying out of concern that an American monopoly on nuclear weapons would be too dangerous.

The view on Fuchs and Hall looks a little different from the present day, owing to the inevitable counterfactuals of history. “I believe General MacArthur wanted to drop nuclear bombs on Southeast Asia” during the Korean War, Close said. The fact that the Russians had, by then, also developed nuclear weapons likely contributed to deciding against such a move. “So that was perhaps a fortunate outcome, though it’s not something I think Klaus Fuchs had designs on.”

The motivation for the Toebbes’ spying remains hazy. They met as graduate students and had two children. Jonathan Toebbe left his Ph.D. program early, in order to make more money. They bought a house in Denver; in 2010, in the aftermath of the stock-market crash, the house’s value plummeted, and they lost the home after defaulting on its mortgage. But, more recently, the Toebbes appeared to be doing well financially. Jonathan’s salary was more than a hundred and fifty thousand dollars; Diana, who was known as a dedicated teacher, likely made sixty thousand dollars. She was considered an outspoken feminist, and, after the election of Donald Trump, was vocal about politics in the classroom.

There is reason to believe that factors other than money or even politics came into play. The Toebbes kept to themselves, rarely returning greetings from neighbors. One neighbor said that he had spoken to Jonathan Toebbe only twice in five years, in order to trim the weeds from their shared fence. In a final correspondence with the person whom Toebbe did not know was an F.B.I. agent, Alice wrote, “One day, when it is safe, perhaps two old friends will have a chance to stumble into each other at a café, share a bottle of wine and laugh over stories of their shared exploits.” It sounds like a line from “Casablanca.”

If the allegations against Toebbe are true, he would not be the only scientist who found emotional rewards during his time as a spy. Harry Gold grew up poor in a suburb of Philadelphia, and, as a teen-ager, during the Great Depression, he supported his family with a job at the Penn Sugar company. While there, he picked up chemistry, but he had no money for formal schooling. After he was laid off, a friend helped him get a job at a soap factory; the friend also tried to get him interested in the Communist Party, but Gold found the people he met at meetings to be “despicable bohemians . . . lazy bums who would never work under any economic system . . . polysyllabic windbags.” He agreed to steal industrial trade secrets for the Soviets, however, because he thought it would improve the lives of their citizens, and he liked the idea of helping people. Like Fuchs, he also admired the Soviet Union for standing against Nazi Germany.

His opinion of his Soviet employers soured, but when they offered to pay for his college education he agreed to move from industrial espionage to military espionage. That was when he began to work with Fuchs. He and Fuchs would take long walks, share meals, and discuss their mutual love of chess and classical music. Gold would share personal details about his wife and kids, who didn’t exist. Gold was eventually caught, after Fuchs confessed to having an American contact, “Raymond,” who the F.B.I. eventually figured out was Gold; he served sixteen years in prison. He was beloved there: he developed a blood-sugar test and earned a patent for it; he worked shifts in the sick ward, nursing inmates. He had always loved to help.


Courtesy: The New Yorker