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Submarine Spy Case: Couple Stewed Over Money and Politics – The New York Times

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Jonathan and Diana Toebbe, charged with trying to sell classified nuclear secrets to a foreign power, struggled with finances, family and the state of America.

In 2010, after Jonathan and Diana Toebbe lost their house in suburban Denver in the wake of the recession, Mr. Toebbe began repeatedly telling friends he needed to “provide for his family.”

A talented graduate student with a Ph.D. project that would have taken him to a career working with America’s arsenal of nuclear bombs, Mr. Toebbe switched his focus to work related to nuclear submarine propulsion, then abandoned his doctoral studies to join the Navy. It was, a friend said, a decision based on the need to make more money quickly.

Eight years later, as a high school teacher in Annapolis, Md., Ms. Toebbe spent an entire advisory period helping a student work on a paper. When the bell rang and the student apologized for taking up so much time, Ms. Toebbe mentioned her love of teaching and, as she often did, her Ph.D.

Then, with a certain bitterness creeping into her tone, she said, “I’m not doing this for the money.”

For the last decade, the Toebbes, according to friends, colleagues, students and public documents, have faced an array of stresses: worries about money, anxieties over raising two children, a feeling of being undervalued, anger about American politics.

Then, starting last year, prosecutors say, the Toebbes took a fateful step: They tried to sell some of America’s most closely guarded nuclear submarine secrets to a foreign power for an initial payment of $100,000 in cryptocurrency, leading to their arrest this month on espionage charges.

The government has yet to say what it believes motivated the Toebbes, though investigators think money may have been a major factor, according to people briefed on the case. Interviews with current and former friends and colleagues do not suggest any singular reason.

The Toebbes had lately seemed to be far more financially stable than they had been a decade ago, earning somewhere in the vicinity of $200,000 a year between them and living in their own home in a middle-class neighborhood in Annapolis.

On Tuesday, a grand jury in Elkins, W.Va., indicted the couple on one count of conspiracy to communicate restricted data and two counts of communication of restricted data.

They are scheduled to appear on Wednesday in a West Virginia federal court, to be arraigned on the charges and where they will have an opportunity to challenge the government’s request to have them held without bail.

None of the Toebbes’ friends or colleagues say they thought the couple would one day be accused of betraying their country. Yet many talked about critical moments in the lives of Jon, 42, and Diana, 45, when they were disappointed by careers, family and their country.

Jose Luis Magana/Associated Press

This article is based on nearly two dozen interviews with people who knew the Toebbes. Most would not agree to be quoted, citing the classified nature of Mr. Toebbe’s work, the ongoing criminal investigation or requests from Ms. Toebbe’s employer, the Key School, not to speak to journalists.

Investigators from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service are still examining how Mr. Toebbe, who continued to work for the Navy as a civilian after leaving the active duty in 2017, could have smuggled out classified material and put it on computer memory cards — a feat that has puzzled current and former officers. A series of thefts of military secrets in recent years has tightened security: External drives and cards cannot be placed in military computers, and photocopiers and printers track who uses them, and for what purpose.

Some students, parents and former colleagues said that Ms. Toebbe became overtly political in her classroom, angered by the Trump presidency and what it seemed to show about America.

“It just seems so out of character,” Janet Monge, who as a curator at the University of Pennsylvania Penn Museum worked with Ms. Toebbe during her graduate research, said in an email exchange. “Not very academic and thoughtful at all.”

In 2005, the couple, who had married in Georgia two years before, moved to Colorado, after Ms. Toebbe finished her Ph.D. in anthropology at Emory University. Both took jobs at the private Kent Denver School.

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Two years later, Mr. Toebbe started his own Ph.D. program at the Colorado School of Mines. The nuclear physics program there is funded in good measure by government grants. It funnels many of its students to jobs at the national labs, for work on nuclear weapons, or to naval reactors, where they can work on the next generations of nuclear submarines or aircraft carriers.

Mr. Toebbe’s initial project, involving work related to nuclear fusion at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, would have taken him to a career in California, working at the lab and on nuclear weapons. Colleagues remember him as a diligent student and a strong presenter who could convey complex ideas to an audience.

But the Ph.D. program provided only a $20,000 annual stipend. Ms. Toebbe’s teaching salary was also modest. In 2005, they purchased a newly constructed four-bedroom house for $268,500 in the Denver suburb of Aurora, with two mortgages covering the entire cost.

When the financial crisis hit in 2008, housing prices dropped precipitously. By July 2010, the couple was behind on mortgage payments and the lender filed for foreclosure. The Toebbes were forced to sell at a significant loss.

Around the same time, Mr. Toebbe began talking to friends about his need to support his family and earn more money. While working at the national lab would eventually lead to a better-paying career path, the military offered a quicker pay increase. Mr. Toebbe swapped research projects, taking a less promising line of study, but one that would take him to the East Coast. And in July 2012, abandoning his Ph.D. and settling for a master’s degree, he joined the Navy.

West Virginia Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority, via Associated Press

In the summer of 2012, they moved with their young children to Annapolis.

In the Navy, Mr. Toebbe, who reached the rank of lieutenant, worked mostly in the Washington area, mainly on naval reactors, but also did a brief tour at the Pentagon. A key question for prosecutors — and one being debated by Navy officials — is when Mr. Toebbe began collecting the information that prosecutors say he eventually tried to sell.

Court documents say Mr. Toebbe had physical access to that information when he was assigned to the Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory, a government-owned research center near Pittsburgh. But Mr. Toebbe was assigned there for only five months in 2014.

He remained on active duty until 2017, when he joined the Navy Reserve. As a civilian, he continued working in the Washington Navy Yard on one of the most important projects the Navy has, designing the reactors for the next generation of nuclear-powered, and nuclear-armed, submarines — the Columbia class. He earned $153,737 a year, according to U.S. government officials.

In Annapolis, Ms. Toebbe quickly made herself at home teaching at the Key School, a small, liberal private institution built on a former farm.

Brian Witte/Associated Press

Inside her classroom were long wooden desks arranged to facilitate discussions, a mini-fridge stocked with Diet Cokes and a pillow corner for students to relax.

Students called her by first name, and she won over many of them with her passion for history and willingness to write college recommendations.

Students and colleagues described her as confident, and many mentioned the pride she took in her Ph.D. In her dissertation, she studied Bronze and Iron Age skeletal remains from Iran. Her professors said her work showed great promise, and several expressed surprise and disappointment that she had not pursued an academic career at a university.

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“She was a pretty outspoken feminist,” said Garrett Karsten, 20, a junior studying philosophy at Hamilton College in New York. “She wasn’t afraid to make her opinion known. I think some kids had a problem with that, but most people basically agreed with her.”

She would sometimes complain about her pay and the wage gap between men and women, mentioning she could make more money elsewhere, some students said. (Former colleagues differed in their estimates of how much she earned, but most said it was probably about $60,000.)

After the 2016 election of Donald J. Trump as president, some former colleagues and parents said, Ms. Toebbe’s political views came out in class discussions. Ms. Toebbe seemed “genuinely distraught,” Mr. Karsten said, even talking about leaving the United States.

West Virginia Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority, via Associated Press

“I feel teachers would not normally say things about packing up and moving,” he said. “She seemed serious, rather than joking.”

Even before the pandemic, the Toebbes never socialized much with neighbors, and she had only a few close friends at the school, eschewing gatherings of teachers.

When the pandemic hit last year and her school went to remote learning, there were indications that Ms. Toebbe was struggling. Some student emails went unanswered. Invitations to moderate outside-of-class online debates — the kind of activity she once relished — were declined. The couple’s children, then 10 and 14, were constantly fighting, according to Ms. Toebbe’s social media posts.

As the pandemic went on, and the Key School began to bring instructors back into the classroom, Ms. Toebbe chose to continue teaching remotely, surprising her students.

It was just a few weeks into the pandemic, in April 2020, when prosecutors say the Toebbes sent a package to an as yet unidentified country. In December, the Federal Bureau of Investigation obtained the package and then, the day after Christmas, sent an encrypted message to the Toebbes offering to buy the information, communications that eventually led to their arrest.

Julian E. Barnes reported from Washington, and JoAnna Daemmrich from Annapolis. Adam Goldman contributed reporting from Washington. Kitty Bennett contributed research.

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Study: Politics Outweighed COVID Severity in Reopening Decisions – Inside Higher Ed

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The political leaning of the county in which a college or university is located is the factor most closely associated with whether it offered in-person or remote instruction in fall 2020, research released Tuesday shows. The article, published in Springer’s Research in Higher Education, finds that the severity of the pandemic near a college and sociopolitical factors in its state were also associated with institutional decisions on how to offer instruction.

State political factors were a stronger factor for four-year public institutions than for four-year private or community colleges, while county political preferences had a stronger effect on four-year private and two-year public institutions.

“Given that in-person instruction was associated with increased COVID-19 incidence in the local area,” the authors write, “polarization, political identification, and institutions feeling compelled to operate as politicized entities (to stay close to the ‘in-group’) likely made the severity of the pandemic worse. These outcomes are aligned with the general findings [of previous research] that institutions seemed to give more weight to sociopolitical features over pandemic severity when choosing in-person instruction for Fall 2020.”

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Why American Politics Is So Stuck — and What New Research Shows About How to Fix It – POLITICO Magazine

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Why does American politics feel so stuck these days, with bipartisan bills vanishingly rare and solutions seemingly taking a back seat to constant attacks?

Our newly published research suggests an answer — and maybe a way to get un-stuck.

Most policies are rife with trade-offs. They have an intended outcome and some regrettable side-effects. Our recent studies suggest that political polarization in the United States runs so deep that it leads partisans to see the other side’s intended outcome as a ruse and the side effects as the real intention. In other words, Democrats and Republicans not only disagree about policy matters; they believe the other party’s agenda is intentionally designed to do harm.

We call this tendency the partisan trade-off bias, and it applies to both parties. To a Democrat, the purpose of an environmental policy that reduces carbon emissions, for example, is to preserve the environment, and a corresponding loss of coal mining jobs is an unfortunate side effect. But a Republican, our research finds, might look at that same policy and see a plot to eradicate jobs in the fossil fuels industry. Meanwhile, a Democrat might presume a Republican push to lower corporate tax rates is more about helping the wealthy and hurting the poor than fueling economic growth.

Of course, skepticism about motives is sometimes warranted. But, oftentimes, it is misguided, and the deeper it runs, the harder it is to get anything through the policymaking process. Unless politicians find a way to lessen the effects of the partisan trade-off bias, we’re likely to keep seeing stalemates on important policy issues.

We documented the partisan trade-off bias across five studies using online samples of a total of 1,236 participants, a mix of Republicans and Democrats. As an example, in one of our studies participants were randomly assigned to view a set of policy trade-offs, some proposed by Republicans and some proposed by Democrats. The policies dealt with taxes, environmental regulation, gun control and voting rights. Participants then rated how intentional they perceived the negative side effects of each policy to be. The more participants identified with the Republican Party, the more intentional they perceived the side effects of the Democratic-proposed policies to be, and the more participants identified with the Democratic Party, the more intentional they perceived the side effects of Republican-proposed policies to be.

In a nutshell, our studies showed that the negative side effects associated with different policy trade-offs are not interpreted by opponents as side effects at all, but as intended goals of the policy.

To date, the political science literature has shown that political polarization leads partisans not only to dislike each other, but to see the other side increasingly as a threat to the country. Our identification of the partisan trade-off bias reveals a psychological tendency that might help to explain this perception of threat. After all, how can you get along with someone who you perceive as intentionally trying to do harm?

The good news is that by identifying the partisan trade-off bias, our research points a path forward: Policymakers who pay more attention to this bias might be better equipped to achieve compromise. This means that rather than focusing only on the main goal of a policy, they need to communicate clearly to the public what is intentional and what is a regrettable side-effect of that goal.

Fortunately, our studies also suggest this might be achievable. The partisan trade-off bias happens not because people don’t understand a given policy, but because they don’t trust the policymakers who are pushing that policy. We found that the level of trust a person feels toward a policymaker proposing a policy is a crucial driver of the partisan trade-off bias. And when we were able to increase people’s trust in the policymaker in our studies, we saw the partisan tradeoff bias decrease substantially.

Existing research suggests there are many ways politicians can earn others’ trust, but one of the most powerful is also the simplest: making sure people feel their voices are heard and listened to before a policy is announced, including both those inclined to like and dislike a policy. When we told participants in our studies that a policymaker spoke with stakeholders from all sides of the political spectrum before rolling out a proposal, the partisan tradeoff bias subsided.

Practically speaking, these findings suggest that announcing a big policy goal, and then doing press tours and campaigns to tout its benefits, likely does little to build trust. What happens before the policy is announced is crucial to building broad support for the policy. Politicians need to make it clear that they are speaking with and listening to those likely to be affected by a policy’s side effects. In the context of climate policy, a politician might visit coal miners in West Virginia or oil and gas workers in Texas while in the process of formulating a plan to reduce emissions, for example. The more widely the politician can advertise these efforts — across multiple types of media and across the ideological spectrum — the better.

Giving people a voice in the process does not mean they will change their minds about the value of the policy. But it does increase the chances that they will see the policy as a sincere attempt to solve problems rather than a form of hidden malice. That, in turn, can help lower the temperature and de-escalate the cycle of polarization. The same lesson holds for those of us who are not policymakers but ordinary citizens who want to have better conversations about politics. If you think you know what the other side’s real intentions are, think again. What you see as malice might be an unintended side effect. And if you want someone to give you the benefit of the doubt, put in the work of making them feel heard before you make yourself heard.

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A new reason to move: politics – Yahoo Canada Finance

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Blue states will get bluer, and red redder, in coming years, as more Americans factor political issues into their relocation decisions and head for places with like-minded tribes.

That’s the forecast from real-estate brokerage Redfin, which included “more migration for political reasons” in its outlook for the housing market in 2022. The deepening political polarization of the country includes new city- and statewide laws likely to attract adherents and repel detractors, driving political issues deeper into community life. Texas this year passed the nation’s strictest anti-abortion law, for instance. A Mississippi anti-abortion law could lead the Supreme Court to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that made abortion legal everywhere. If the Supreme Court overturns Roe, states will once again be free to set their own abortion statutes, creating a drastic dividing line between permissive and restrictive states.

Another Supreme Court case, involving gun rights, could make it easier to carry concealed weapons in New York and 7 other states, eroding gun-control efforts propagated largely by Democratic governors and mayors. On the other hand, marijuana is now legal in 19 mostly blue and purple states. Cities such as Philadelphia, San Francisco and New York are experimenting with police reform meant to cut down on lower-level arrests. Public-school curricula is a new flash point between parents who want racial and social justice taught in schools, and traditionalists who feel threatened by “wokeness.”

A U.S. Supreme Court police officer walks past its building as rulings are expected in Washington, U.S. November 22, 2021. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

A U.S. Supreme Court police officer walks past its building as rulings are expected in Washington, U.S. November 22, 2021. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

The Covid pandemic led to sharp disparities in masking rules, school opening policies and business restrictions among states and cities. That’s on top of longstanding differences in regulation and taxation between traditionally Democratic and Republican states. While there’s nothing new about regional differences in governing styles, policy polarization is making it easier for Americans to live in areas they find ideologically compatible. It’s also getting harder for liberals to find a comfortable enclave in conservative states, and vice versa.

[Click here to get Rick Newman’s stories by email.]

Moving patterns reflect politics

Americans seem increasingly likely to sort themselves into ideological groups by geography. “We know people are leaving blue counties and moving to red counties,” says Daryl Fairweather, chief economist at Redfin. “I think this will start to happen at the state level and at the neighborhood level. After next year’s midterm elections, we’ll be able to see if neighborhoods become more polarized.”

Up till now, the migration from blue states to red states has largely been driven by affordability. Blue states along the coasts typically have higher living costs and taxation levels than, say southern red states such as Texas and Florida. More and more, however, moving patterns reflect overt political choices.

An October Redfin survey of people who recently moved, for instance, found that 40% said they would prefer or insist on living in a place where abortion is fully legal. The portion taking the opposite view—saying they would prefer or refuse to live in an area where abortion is fully legal—was 32%. It’s not unusual for survey respondents to express strong opinions on abortion, but it may be new for people to factor such views into moving decisions. If the Supreme Court overturns Roe and more states ban or severely restrict abortion, it could become a bigger factor in relocation.

HOUSTON, TEXAS - AUGUST 12: A newly sold home is shown on August 12, 2021 in Houston, Texas. Home prices have climbed during the pandemic as low interest rates and working from home has become more abundant. Home prices around the country continue to surge in the second quarter as strong demand continues to overwhelm the supply of homes for sale. Nationwide, the median single-family existing-home sales price increased by 22.9% in the second quarter. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)HOUSTON, TEXAS - AUGUST 12: A newly sold home is shown on August 12, 2021 in Houston, Texas. Home prices have climbed during the pandemic as low interest rates and working from home has become more abundant. Home prices around the country continue to surge in the second quarter as strong demand continues to overwhelm the supply of homes for sale. Nationwide, the median single-family existing-home sales price increased by 22.9% in the second quarter. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

A newly sold home is shown on August 12, 2021 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

The Redfin survey of movers also gauged attitudes toward other touchy political topics. Larger percentages favored living in areas with liberal policies such as strong voter protections, gender anti-discrimination laws and legal weed. But 23% said they don’t want to live in places with strong anti-discrimination laws, 22% don’t want to live in a state with legal weed, and 16% don’t want to live where there are strong voter protections.

Americans consider many factors when deciding where to live, and some of those factors have political overtones. Many parents base home-buying decisions on the quality of schools, which drives up home prices in the best school districts and creates de facto segregation. The white-flight phenomenon has a similar effect, with whites who can afford to leaving urban areas for places where they consider quality of life better.

But those types of location decisions are based more on family-first attitudes than the liberal-conservative divide that’s taking root now. Americans choose a political tribe when they vote, donate money to political causes and decide which cable-news station to watch. Perhaps it’s only natural that Americans want to live among their political comrades, as well. Like much of America, real-estate listings are trending toward liberal or conservative.  

Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. You can also send confidential tips.

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