A former U.S. Army’s Special Forces officer has been arrested in Alexandria, VA, and charged with passing secrets of American military units and personnel to the Russian military intelligence arm (GRU) for over a decade.
Peter Rafael Dzibinski Debbins, 45, was recruited by Russian intelligence operatives as he considered himself a “son of Russia,” according to a 17-page indictment that was released after his arrest.
John C. Demers, Assistant Attorney General for National Security said that,
“Debbins violated his oath as a U.S. Army officer, betrayed the Special Forces and endangered our country’s national security by revealing classified information to Russian intelligence officers, providing details of his unit, and identifying Special Forces team members for Russian intelligence to try to recruit as a spy [sic]. Our country put its highest trust in this defendant, and he took that trust and weaponized it against the United States.”
Debbins is the second person this week charged by the Justice Department for transmitting U.S. secrets to a foreign country. In the other case, a former CIA officer in Hawaii (Alexander Yuk Ching Ma) was arrested and charged with spying for China.
Debbins first agreed to spy for Russia back in 1996 when he was an ROTC cadet. His mother had been born in the former Soviet Union and Debbins told Russian GRU operatives who were trying to recruit him that he considered himself “a son of Russia.” He had told his Russian handlers that he considered the United States “too dominant” in world matters and that it “needed to be cut down to size.”
The GRU gave Debbins the code name “Ikar Lesnikov.”
In 1997 he married a Russian woman, the daughter of a Russian military officer from the Russian city of Chelyabinsk.
After graduating from the University of Minnesota and being assigned to a Chemical Co. in Korea, Debbins returned to Russia. He briefed his handlers on his unit, its mission, and personnel during a subsequent visit to Russia.
He offered to take a polygraph test for his handlers when they asked if he was working for an American intelligence agency. He told them that he wished to leave the military, but they encouraged him to stay. They further urged Debbins to apply for and join the Special Forces. He was told that “he was of no use to the Russian intelligence service as an infantry commander.” Debbins passed Special Forces Selection (SFAS) and the qualification course (SFQC) and was assigned as a captain in the 1st Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group (1-10 SFG).
On another trip to Russia, he briefed his GRU contacts about his SF unit, its personnel, locations, and mission. Debbins had his security clearance suspended and command of his A-Team revoked for an unspecified security violation in 2004 or 2005. He then left the military in 2005 with an honorable discharge, according to the indictment.
In subsequent meetings with his GRU handlers, Debbins disclosed information about his unit’s deployments to Azerbaijan and Georgia that were deemed “SECRET/NOFORN.” Debbins also gave the GRU the names of his former team members knowing that the Russians sought the “information for the purpose of evaluating whether to approach the team members to see if they would cooperate with the Russian intelligence service.” He also passed the names of two American counter-intelligence agents who tried to recruit him for an operation.
Once his active duty service was over he began to work for a Ukrainian steel company in Minnesota through his Russian contacts. He remained a member of the Reserves until 2010. During this time his security clearance was reinstated by an Army adjudicator, although he was warned that his family and business connections to Russia might make him “the target of a foreign intelligence service.”
Debbins was a “true believer” and not motivated by monetary gains. In fact, when the Russians (who are notoriously cheap in the intelligence world when it comes to paying agents) offered him $1,000 he initially declined it stating that he “loved and was committed to Russia.” He only reluctantly accepted the money as “gratitude for his assistance to the Russian intelligence service.” At a 2003 meeting, he was given a bottle of Cognac and a Russian military uniform.
The Justice Department did not divulge how it came to know that Debbins was spying for Russia. His last contact with his handlers was in 2011 when he told them that moved to the D.C. area (Gainesville, VA).
He will be indicted formally on Monday. He faces life imprisonment if convicted.
“The facts alleged in this case are a shocking betrayal by a former Army officer of his fellow soldiers and his country,” Alan E. Kohler Jr., FBI Assistant Director of the Counterintelligence Division, said in a statement.
The entire indictment can be read here.