A former U.S. Army Green Beret was arrested Friday on espionage charges, accused of handing over classified defense information to the Russian intelligence service in a conspiracy that lasted more than a decade.
Prosecutors say that from 1996 to 2011, Peter Rafael Dzibinski Debbins conspired with Russian nationals, who told him they were intelligence agents working for the country's primary military intelligence agency, GRU. During this period, he made repeated trips to Russia, where both his wife and his mother were born.
"Our military is tasked with the awesome responsibility of protecting our nation from its adversaries, and its service members make incredible sacrifices in service of that duty," said Zachary Terwilliger, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. "When service members collude to provide classified information to our foreign adversaries, they betray the oaths they swore to their country and their fellow service members."
Court documents indicate that Debbins, 45, was initially contacted by members of the foreign intelligence service while he was a college student studying abroad in Russia in 1996. In meetings with the unidentified intelligence officers, Debbins disclosed he was in his university's ROTC program and planned to join the military after college, but declared he was ultimately a "son of Russia."
After graduating from college, Debbins returned to Russia in 1997, where he was assigned the code name, "Ikar Lesnikov," by Russian intelligence. He subsequently signed a statement under his code name saying he wished to "serve Russia."
After beginning U.S. active-duty service in 1998, Debbins was deployed to South Korea to serve as a lieutenant in the 4th Chemical Company. While on leave, he traveled to Russia and provided his contacts in the intelligence service with U.S. defense information, including the number of men in his platoon, their equipment, and mission.
"During these times, Debbins sought to help Russia, as he considered himself pro-Russian and a loyal son of Russia," the court documents say. "Debbins thought that the United States was too dominant in the world and needed to be cut down to size."
Debbins received gifts in exchange for the information he provided to Russian intelligence. In 2000, he was given $1,000 "as gratitude for his assistance to the Russian Intelligence Service." Prosecutors say that while Debbins initially dismissed the payment because "he had true love for Russia," he ended up taking it and signing for it with his given code name. Later he received a bottle of cognac and a Russian military uniform.
After he left the Army in 2008, Debbins returned to Russia, "angry and bitter" about his service in the U.S. Special Forces, and eager to start a business venture in Russia. He ended up working as part of a front created by a GRU officer, and subsequently continued to provide them with information, including classified intelligence about his unit's missions in Georgia and Azerbaijan. He even handed over the names of his team members in the Special Forces, knowing that the Russian officers would try to contact them "to see if they would cooperate with the Russian intelligence service."
Debbins' cooperation with GRU, also known as "Fancy Bear," is significant, because that arm of Russia's intelligence service would later go on to hack the emails of the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 election. The Democrats' emails were disseminated via DCLeaks and WikiLeaks and were further amplified by a network of bot accounts on social media. Most recently, GRU has been tied to the hack of Burisma Holdings, the Ukrainian energy company where Hunter Biden, Joe Biden's son, was previously a board member.
Debbins' arrest is the second high-profile espionage related arrest this week. On Tuesday, Alexander Yuk Ching Ma, a former CIA officer, was accused of selling top-secret information to China in a scheme that also lasted for over a decade. John Demers, assistant attorney general for national security said, "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."
Debbins has been arrested and is being detained at the Alexandria Detention Center. He has been charged with one count of conspiracy to gather or deliver defense information to aid a foreign government, and if convicted, he could be imprisoned for life.