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Ex-Army Green Beret arrested for spying for Russia for 13 years, say charges

Handcuffs. (Keith Allison/Flickr)
August 21, 2020

A former U.S. Army Green Beret was charged Friday with spying on behalf of Russia as far back as 1996.

Peter Rafael Dzibinski Debbins, 45, of Gainesville, Virginia, was arrested and charged with passing along classified material to Russia between December 1996 to January 2011, according to a Department of Justice press statement. He was charged by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia.

The charges against Debbins come one week after a former Central Intelligence Agency member, Alexander Yuk Ching Ma, 67, was arrested on charges he spied for China. Debbins is the second U.S. individual who had access to classified information that has been charged with spying for a foreign government in as many weeks.

Charges against Debbins note that he served from 1998 to 2005, as an officer in the U.S. Army, serving in chemical units before being selected for the U.S. Army Special Forces. According to federal prosecutors, Russian intelligence agents reportedly encouraged Debbins to join and the elite Special Forces, known as “Green Berets.” He continued to serve in the Army and reached the rank of Captain.

“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 charges against Debbins state. “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.”

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The charging documents against Debbins state he traveled to Russia in 1994 at the age of 19 and then traveled to Russia again in various years after that. At some point after his initial Russian visit, Debbins joined the U.S. Army and obtained a “Secret” security clearance in 1996 and then a “Top Secret” clearance in 2004. In addition to providing classified information to the Russians, Debbins is also accused of lying on numerous security clearance questionnaires that ask about an applicant’s ties to foreign nationals.

Debbins is accused of providing information specifically to Russia’s GRU intelligence service. If convicted, he faces a maximum penalty of life in prison.

The charges say Debbins’ unit deployed in 2004 to the Republic of Azerbaijan, which borders Russia. During this deployment, Debbins was in charge of operations in both Azerbaijan and the neighboring Republic of Georgia. He was investigated for a security violation during this deployment and subsequently lost both his security clearance and was removed from his command. Debbins was honorably discharged from the military in 2005.

The press statement says in 2008, Debbins described the activities of his unit and even provided the Russian intelligence agents with the names of, and information about, a number of his former Special Forces team members. The information allegedly was used to help his Russian contacts evaluate whether to try and recruit those team members as well.

“The facts alleged in this case are a shocking betrayal by a former Army officer of his fellow soldiers and his country,” said Alan E. Kohler, Jr., the FBI Assistant Director for the Counterintelligence Division. “Debbins is accused of giving Russian intelligence officers sensitive information about the units in which he once served and also providing the names of other service members so Russia could try to recruit them. These actions cannot stand and the FBI will aggressively pursue such cases.”

The FBI’s Minneapolis Field Office, the United Kingdom’s Metropolitan Police Service, and the U.K.’s domestic counter-intelligence service, MI5, participated in the investigation against Debbins.