A former US army green beret living in northern Virginia has been arrested and charged with divulging military secrets about his unit’s activities during more than a decade of contacts with Russian intelligence.
Peter Rafael Dzibinski Debbins, 45, told Russian intelligence he considered himself a son of Russia, according to an indictment made public after his arrest on Friday.
Debbins thought that the United States was too dominant in the world and needed to be cut down to size, prosecutors alleged.
The indictment also stated that Debbins was motivated in part because of bitterness over his army career and a desire to establish business contacts in Russia.
The espionage took place from 1996 to 2011, prosecutors said.
“The facts alleged in this case are a shocking betrayal by a former army officer of his fellow soldiers and his country,” said FBI senior counterintelligence official Alan Kohler in a statement.
Debbins’ mother was born in the Soviet Union, and Debbins met his wife in the Russian city of Chelyabinsk, where they were married in 1997, according to the indictment.
Debbins allegedly periodically met Russian intelligence beginning in 1996, when he was a student at the University of Minnesota, through 2011. As far back as 1997, he was even assigned a code name by Russian intelligence agent Ikar Lesnikov, after signing a statement saying that he wanted to serve Russia, according to prosecutors.
Debbins received nominal payments for his information, even though he initially refused the money. In one meeting with Russian intelligence, he accepted a bottle of Cognac and a Russian military uniform as payment, according to the indictment.
Debbins will have an initial court appearance on Monday. He is charged under the espionage act with providing national defense information to those not entitled to receive it. He could face up to life in prison.
Debbins held Secret and later Top Secret security clearances during the time of his criminal conduct, and served in the army special forces as well, according to the indictment.
The indictment alleges Debbins’ espionage began in late 1996 when he gave one of his Russian handlers the names of four Catholic nuns he had visited while in Russia.
He was assigned to a chemical unit in South Korea in 1998 and 1999, and the indictment says he provided his Russian handlers information about that deployment. He later deployed with his special forces unit to Azerbaijan and Georgia.
He also allegedly provided information and names of his fellow Special Forces members.
On multiple occasions, the Russian handlers asked Debbins for military field manuals. Debbins explained that he was unable to provide them because he believed that carrying the manuals would prompt Homeland Security to stop him at the airport and seize his electronic devices.
Debbins then lost his security clearance and command of his unit for an unspecified security violation in 2004 or 2005, and then left the military in 2005 with an honourable discharge. He worked from 2005 to 2010 in Minnesota for a Ukrainian steel manufacture and a transportation company.
His security clearance was restored in 2010 by an army adjudicator, according to the indictment, though the reinstatement came with a warning that his family and business connections to Russia might make him the target of a foreign intelligence service.
Debbins had told his Russian handlers as far back as 1997 that he wanted to leave the military, but they encouraged him to stay. They also encouraged his decision to join the special forces, saying he was of no use to the Russian intelligence service as an infantry commander.