A former Army Green Beret has pleaded guilty to spying for Russia, underscoring a clandestine relationship with Russia’s military intelligence agency that dates back to 1996.
According to the Department of Justice, former Army Special Forces officer Peter Rafael Dzibinski Debbins, 45, shared information with intelligence agents from Russia’s GRU from 1996 to 2011. Formally known as the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, the GRU is Russia’s military intelligence agency, roughly analogous to the CIA.
“President Kennedy called the Green Berets ‘a symbol of excellence, a badge of courage, a mark of distinction.’ Mr. Debbins’ actions were a symbol of betrayal, a badge of cowardice, and a mark of treachery,” Alan Kohler Jr., assistant director of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division, said in a Justice statement. “He pledged his allegiance to Russia, and in doing so, sold out his country and fellow Green Berets.”
Federal officials arrested Debbins on Aug. 21. He confessed to his crimes days later.
“I had a messianic vision for myself in Russia, that I was going to free them from their oppressive government, so I was flattered when they reached out to me,” Debbins wrote in a statement released by prosecutors in August, multiple news agencies reported.
Charged under the federal Espionage Act, Debbins pleaded guilty Wednesday, the Department of Justice said in a release. Scheduled for sentencing Feb. 26, 2021, Debbins faces a maximum of life in prison.
“Debbins today acknowledged that he violated this country’s highest trust by passing sensitive national security information to the Russians,” said John Demers, assistant attorney general for national security, in a Wednesday statement. “Debbins betrayed his oath, his country, and his Special Forces team members with the intent to harm the United States and help Russia.”
The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not immediately respond to a request for comment by Coffee or Die Magazine regarding Debbins’ guilty plea.
Debbins first visited Russia in 1994 when he was 19 years old, according to the federal indictment filed in August. His mother was born in the Soviet Union, and he met his wife in Chelyabinsk, Russia, where the couple later married in 1997. His father-in-law was a former Russian air force colonel.
Debbins, who made numerous trips back to Russia over the years, served in the Army from 1998 to 2005, rising to the rank of captain as a member of Special Forces. He never served in combat, according to military statements.
According to court documents, Debbins was recruited by Russian intelligence as early as 1996, while he was still an ROTC student at the University of Minnesota. Using the code name “Ikar Lesnikov,” Debbins allegedly told his Russian handlers that he was a “son of Russia.”
Former Army Green Beret Pleads Guilty to Russian Espionage Conspiracyhttps://t.co/TUfgrURse2
— Justice Department (@TheJusticeDept) November 18, 2020
Debbins received a reserve commission in the US Army after graduating from the University of Minnesota in 1997. In the interval between graduation and before beginning active-duty service in 1998, he lived and worked in Russia, Justice said.
He initially served as a chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear officer. In 1999, while he was stationed in South Korea, Debbins traveled to Russia and made contact with a Russian intelligence agent from the GRU.
“Debbins thought that the United States was too dominant in the world and needed to be cut down to size,” wrote the authors of the federal indictment.
In 2003, Debbins completed Special Forces training. A captain by then, he was assigned to 1st Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group in Germany.
He returned to Russia in 2003 and made contact again with intelligence agents, one of whom identified himself as a member of the GRU. In August 2004, Debbins was granted a top-secret security clearance with Special Compartmentalized Information (SCI) access.
Debbins’ security clearance was subsequently suspended around the end of 2004, and he was removed from his command due to a security violation he received for bringing his Russian wife to Azerbaijan during a deployment and allowing her to use a government cellphone. He was honorably discharged from the Army in November 2005.
After leaving active-duty service, Debbins allegedly returned to Russia in 2008 and informed intelligence agents there about US Special Forces activity in Azerbaijan, including the names of and other information about his former Special Forces team members in the country. Allegedly, Russian agents sought that information as part of a gambit to recruit more American spies.
Following Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, Debbins also allegedly shared information with Russian agents about US military activity in that post-Soviet country. Debbins received a new top-secret clearance in 2010 and worked on other sensitive projects related to Russia and cybersecurity for the Pentagon. He reportedly worked for the defense contractors CACI, Booz Allen Hamilton, and CoSolutions Inc.
“Our country entrusted Debbins with the responsibility and training to protect it from its adversaries,” G. Zachary Terwilliger, US attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, said in a statement. “Debbins betrayed that trust and betrayed his fellow service members by conspiring to provide national defense information to Russian intelligence operatives.”
Debbins graduated from and later taught at The Institute of World Politics, a DC-based foreign policy school. According to a professional biography of Debbins, published online by the institute, Debbins “possesses native fluency in Russian.” The school also said that the former Green Beret worked as a Russian cyber analyst for the US government, as well as an instructor for US European Command and NATO.
Debbins’ arrest in August came just days after federal agents arrested Alexander Yuk Ching Ma, 67, in Hawaii, for allegedly providing classified information to operatives from China’s Ministry of State Security. The dual arrests, just days apart, highlighted what federal officials said is an ongoing espionage campaign against the US by Russia and China.
“Two espionage arrests in the past week — Ma in Hawaii and now Debbins in Virginia — demonstrate that we must remain vigilant against espionage from our two most malicious adversaries — Russia and China,” Demers, the assistant attorney general for national security, said in an Aug. 21 release, announcing the espionage charges against Debbins.