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Former Green Beret accused of spying on the US for Russia

Peter Debbins served on active duty from 1998 to 2005, during which Russian intelligence agents allegedly encouraged him to join Special Forces
Jeff Schogol Avatar

A former Green Beret has been arrested for allegedly serving as an asset for Russian military intelligence agents from December 1996 until January 2011, the Justice Department announced on Friday.

Peter Rafael Dzibinski Debbins is charged with conspiring to provide United States national defense information to agents of a foreign government, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia. 

The maximum penalty for this offense is life in prison.

A former captain, Debbins served as a Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear officer and a Special Forces officer from July 1998 to November 2005, according to the Army.

“The Army is tasked with the great responsibility of protecting our nation from its adversaries, and soldiers make incredible sacrifices in service to that responsibility,” Army spokesman Lt. Col. Emanuel Ortiz said on Friday. “When any soldier among our ranks colludes to provide classified information to our foreign adversaries, they betray the oaths they swore to their country and duty owed to their fellow soldiers. If true, the facts alleged in the case of this former Army officer are a betrayal to his fellow soldiers and his country.”

During his time in the Army, Russian intelligence agents allegedly encouraged him to join Special Forces, a U.S. Attorney’s Office news release says.

“Over the course of the conspiracy, Debbins allegedly provided the Russian intelligence agents with information that he obtained as a member of the U.S. Army, including information about his chemical and Special Forces units,” the news release says. “In 2008, after leaving active duty service, Debbins disclosed to the Russian intelligence agents classified information about his previous activities while deployed with the Special Forces.” 

“Debbins also provided the Russian intelligence agents with the names of, and information about, a number of his former Special Forces team members so that the agents could evaluate whether to approach the team members to see if they would cooperate with the Russian intelligence service.”

Federal prosecutors allege that Debbins became interested in Russia because his mother was born in the Soviet Union, according to the indictment.

Later, when he deployed to Azerbaijan, Debbins was investigated for a security violation, the indictment says. He was removed from Azerbaijan and his security clearance was suspended.

Debbins received an honorable discharge from the Army in November 2005 and remained in the inactive ready reserve until December 2010, the indictment says.

Debbins allegedly first met with Russian agents in 1996 while he was a University of Minnesota student spending time in Russia, the indictment says. The following year, Russia’s military intelligence service allegedly gave Debbins the code name “Ikar Lesnikov,” and Debbins allegedly signed a statement that he wanted to “serve Russia.”

Federal prosecutors accuse Debbins of giving Russian military intelligence, information about his unit in South Korea. Later, when Debbins told a Russian agent that he intended to join Army Special Forces, the agent encouraged him to do so because “he was of no use to the Russian intelligence service as an infantry commander,” the indictment says.

While assigned to the 1st Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group in August 2003, Debbins allegedly provided the Russians with the number of companies and soldiers in his unit along with their location and role, the indictment says.

Starting in 2008, Debbins began informing Russian agents that he was out of the Army but wanted their help with doing business in Russia, according to the indictment.

Debbins is accused of telling the Russians about his former Special Forces unit’s activities in Azerbaijan and the Republic of Georgia and providing Russian agents with information about his former Special Forces teammates who could potentially approached to work for Russian intelligence, the indictment says.

Federal prosecutors claim that Debbins identified one specific Special Forces soldier whom Russian agents could try to turn, the indictment says.

“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,” Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers said in a statement. “Our country put its highest trust in this defendant, and he took that trust and weaponized it against the United States.”

The indictment against Debbins did not include any information indicating that he is represented by an attorney. A woman who said she was a member of Debbins’ family declined to comment when contacted by Task & Purpose on Friday.