WASHINGTON — A former Army Green Beret captain was accused Friday of violating espionage laws after federal investigators said they uncovered evidence that he joined the military at the behest of Russian intelligence operatives and had betrayed the United States for years.
The suspect, Peter Rafael Dzibinski Debbins, 45, of Gainesville, Virginia, was arrested on a conspiracy charge of providing national defense information to Russia in an elaborate spying operation that appeared to begin in 1996, prosecutors said. He turned over sensitive military information and the names of fellow service members so Russia could try to recruit them, complained that the U.S. was too dominant in the world, and accepted money and gifts including liquor and a Russian military uniform.
Debbins is the second former government official in recent days to be charged with espionage. A former CIA officer who went on to work on contract as an FBI translator, Alexander Yuk Ching Ma, was arrested last week on charges of giving classified information to the Chinese government.
Debbins, who once held top security clearances, was scheduled to appear in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, on Monday. It was not clear whether he had a lawyer.
The extraordinary level of detail in the indictment suggested that the Justice Department and FBI might be relying on a cooperator or defector who had access to the sensitive, if dated, Russian information and was willing to testify. In a news release, U.S. authorities thanked Britain’s law enforcement officials and its domestic spy agency, MI5, suggesting the country also played a role in making the case.
“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 assistant director of the FBI’s counterintelligence division.
Debbins’ mother was born in the former Soviet Union, partly prompting his interest in Russia, prosecutors said. He met his wife on one of his first trips there; her father was a Russian military officer.
He was first recruited by Russian intelligence in 1996 while studying in Russia, according to an indictment. He told the Russian operatives he was a “son of Russia” and planned to join the U.S. military. He later met with operatives at a military base in Russia, where, prosecutors said, he told his handlers he wanted to “serve Russia,” signing a statement saying so with a code name they gave him, Ikar Lesnikov.
Prosecutors said Debbins joined the Army in 1998 after graduating from the University of Minnesota. During a tour in South Korea a year later, he returned to Russia and met with operatives from its military intelligence agency, known as the GRU. Debbins told his handlers about military activities and said he wanted to leave the Army, but they encouraged him to remain.
At one point in the meeting, the Russians asked Debbins whether he was really a spy for U.S. intelligence. He denied the accusation, insisting he loved and was committed to Russia. He even agreed to take a polygraph, though Russia never subjected him to such a test.
Later, Debbins met with the GRU in Moscow and explained his plans to join the U.S. Special Forces. The GRU pushed him to join, saying he was of no use to Russian intelligence as an infantry commander and offered him $1,000, which Debbins initially declined. He eventually relented, accepting the money and signing for it by again using his code name.
While in the Special Forces, Debbins traveled to Russia in 2003. During his meetings with the GRU, Russian intelligence officials offered to give him training on how to beat a polygraph. They plied him with gifts such as a bottle of cognac and the Russian military uniform.
Debbins finished active duty in the Army in 2005 until he was removed from his command in Azerbaijan because of a security violation. He was then honorably discharged, prosecutors said.
In about 2008, Debbins once again made his way to Russia, providing details about his unit’s mission and activities in Azerbaijan and Georgia. He told the Russians at one point that he was revealing the details because he was “angry and bitter” about his time in the Army and that the U.S. needed to be “cut down in size.”
After he finished active duty, Debbins lived in Minnesota from 2005 to 2010, working for a Ukrainian company. He served in the U.S. Army’s inactive reserve from 2005 until 2010.
According to the indictment, he traveled to Russia one last time in 2010, emphasizing to his handlers that he wanted to pursue business there but that his handlers encouraged him to get a job with the U.S. government.
In previous high-profile espionage cases, the FBI and CIA have relied on spies overseas or defectors to help expose Russian intelligence operatives working in the U.S. or Americans working for Russia. One of the most famous cases involved Robert Hanssen, a former FBI agent who gave Russia immense amounts of sensitive information, including the names of Russian agents working as moles for the United States and other U.S. intelligence sources, some of whom were later executed.
A former Russian intelligence official implicated Hanssen, providing documents to the FBI that demonstrated his betrayal. He was arrested and later sentenced to life in prison, and the Russian former official was resettled to the U.S.