Former US Army Officer Arrested on Charges of Spying for Russia
By Masood Farivar August 21, 2020
A former U.S. Army Special Forces officer was arrested on Friday on charges of spying for Russia, the second foreign espionage case announced by federal prosecutors this week.
Peter Rafael Dzibinski Debbins, 45, who first visited Russia in 1994 as a teenager and is married to a Russian national, allegedly worked for Russian military intelligence from 1996 to 2011, periodically visiting the country and sharing sensitive U.S. military information with Russian agents, according to a 17-page indictment unsealed Friday in the Eastern District of Virginia.
The case comes four days after former CIA officer Alexander Yuk Ching Ma was charged in federal court in Honolulu with spying for 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," Assistant Attorney General John C. Demers said on Friday.
In a statement, the Army said the allegations against Debbins, if true, "are a betrayal to his fellow soldiers and his country."
Debbins is charged with conspiring to provide U.S. national defense information to agents of a foreign government. The charge carries a maximum penalty of life in prison.
Ma also faces life in prison if convicted.
Debbins, of Gainesville, Virginia, served as an active duty Army officer from 1998 to 2005, first as a lieutenant in a chemical company and eventually as a captain in the elite forces known as the Green Berets.
A 1997 graduate of the University of Minnesota where he was a member of the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC), Debbins was allegedly recruited by Russian intelligence in the Russian city of Chelyabinsk in 1996 while still in college, according to the indictment.
It was in Chelyabinsk that Dobbins met his now wife, the daughter of a Russian military officer. And it was there that he had his first meetings with Russian intelligence officers who gave him a code name – "Ikar Lesnikov" – and had him sign a statement saying he wanted to "serve Russia," according to the indictment.
Initially, Dobbins appears to have been motivated by a pro-Russia ideology rather than money, telling his handlers in 2000 that he "loved and was committed to Russia" as he reluctantly accepted $1,000 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.
Debbins left the army in late 2005, a year after being investigated for a "security violation" and removed from his command of a U.S. Army Special Forces Unit in Azerbaijan.
Serving as a reserve officer over the following five years, Debbins continued to meet with Russian agents, providing them with classified information about the U.S. military.
In the late 2000s, according to the indictment, Debbins gave the Russians classified information about his former Special Forces team's mission and activities in Azerbaijan and Georgia, Debbins told investigators.
He also gave them 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," according to the indictment.
The former Green Beret is also accused of providing the Russians with the names of two U.S. counterintelligence officers who had allegedly attempted to recruit him for a program.
The indictment alleges that Debbins provided all this information to the Russians "at least in part because he was angry and bitter about his time in the U.S. Army."
"Debbins also thought that Russia needed to be built up and America needed to be 'cut down to size'," according to the indictment.
Debbins' contacts with the Russians continued as late as January 2011 when he emailed a Russian businessman tied to Russian intelligence about a business venture, according to the indictment.
"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.
A lawyer for Debbins could not be reached for comment.
National Security Correspondent Jeff Seldin contributed to this report.
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