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Former US Army Officer Pleads Guilty of Spying for Russia

By Masood Farivar November 18, 2020

A former U.S. Army Special Forces officer pleaded guilty on Wednesday to charges of providing sensitive military information to Russian intelligence agents.

Peter Rafael Dzibinski Debbins, 45, who was arrested in August, pleaded guilty to one count of delivering defense information to a foreign government.

He'll be sentenced in February and faces a maximum of life in prison, the Justice Department said in a statement.

According to court documents, Debbins, who served in the elite Green Berets, periodically traveled to Russia between 1996 and 2011, sharing sensitive U.S. military information with Russian intelligence agents. In 1997 he was given a code name "Ikar Lesnikov" and signed a statement attesting that he wanted to "serve Russia," U.S. prosecutors say.

"Debbins today acknowledged that he violated this country's highest trust by passing sensitive national security information to the Russians," John C. Demers, assistant attorney general for national security, said in a statement. "Debbins betrayed his oath, his country, and his Special Forces team members with the intent to harm the United States and help Russia."

In a statement, an Army spokesman added, "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."

Soviet roots

Debbins' mother was born in the former Soviet Union, according to court documents, and he developed "an interest in Russia at least in part due to his mother's heritage."

He first traveled to Russia in 1994 when he was 19 years old and met his now-wife, the daughter of a Russian military officer, in Chelyabinsk.

In 1996, while attending the University of Minnesota as a member of the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC), Debbins visited Chelyabinsk where he was allegedly recruited by Russian intelligence agents, according to court documents. Chelyabinsk is located near a Russian military base.

ROTC is U.S. military officer training program for college and university students.

Debbins served in the U.S. Army from 1998 to 2005, first as an officer in chemical units and later as a captain in the Special Forces. U.S. prosecutors say he joined the Special Forces at the urging of his Russian handlers and was honorably discharged in 2005 following a security violation investigation.

Court documents

Debbins' covert activities for Russian intelligence agents spanned his seven-year active-duty military service and beyond. In 2008, three years after leaving active duty, Debbins provided Russian agents with information about his former Special Forces unit's mission and activities in Azerbaijan and Georgia, according to court documents.

He also disclosed to them the names of a number of his former Special Forces team members, information that the Russians sought "for the purpose of evaluating whether to approach the team members to see if they would cooperate with the Russian intelligence service," according to a court filing made in connection with his guilty plea.

Debbins provided this information to Russia "at least in part because he was angry and bitter about his time in the U.S. Army," the filing says.

David Barry Benowitz, one of Debbins' attorneys, did not respond to a request for comment.

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