Feds charge former Green Beret with spying for Russia in latest legal blow to Special Forces community

FALLS CHURCH, Va. (AP) — A former Army Green Beret living in northern Virginia was arrested on Friday, charged with divulging military secrets about his unit’s activities in former Soviet republics 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.

“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 states 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 say.

The case against Debbins is the second Justice Department prosecution announced this week accusing a government or military official of transmitting U.S. secrets to a foreign country. The other case, in Hawaii, charged a former CIA officer with spying for China.

The two prosecutions “demonstrate that we must remain vigilant against espionage from our two most malicious adversaries — Russia and China,” Assistant Attorney General John Demers, the Justice Department’s top national security official, said 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, of Gainesville, periodically met Russian intelligence beginning in 1996, when he was an ROTC student at the University of Minnesota, through 2011. As far back as 1997, he was even assigned a code name by Russian intelligence agents — 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.

“When service members collude to provide classified information to our foreign adversaries, they betray the oaths they swore to their country and their fellow service members,” said G. Zachary Terwilliger, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, whose office is prosecuting the case. “As this indictment reflects, we will be steadfast and dogged in holding such individuals accountable.”

Debbins, who was arrested Friday, will have an initial court appearance on Monday. Online court records remained sealed, so it was unclear whether Debbins has an attorney. 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 U.S. 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.

The indictment states that Debbins 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 honorable discharge. He worked from 2005 through 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.”

According to the indictment, military officers questions Debbins about his travel after visits to Russia in 2000 and 2003, but he failed to disclose his interactions with Russian intelligence.

The court papers do not explain what led prosecutors to bring charges now or how he came to be under criminal investigation.

Debbins is one of several former Green Berets to have run into legal trouble recently.

An ex-Army Green Beret and his son were arrested Wednesday after being charged with helping a former chairman of Nissan Motor Co. escape from Japan while awaiting trial for financial crimes, according to a federal criminal complaint filed May 6.

Japanese authorities issued warrants earlier this year and sought the extradition of Michael Taylor, a 59-year-old former Special Forces soldier turned private security contractor, and his son Peter, 27, after investigators say they aided in the Dec. 29 escape of Carlos Ghosn by hiding him in containers for music equipment aboard a private jet.

And earlier this month, a Venezuelan court sentenced two former U.S. Special Forces soldiers to 20 years in prison for their part in a blunder-filled beach attack aimed at overthrowing President Nicolás Maduro.

Lawyers for the former Green Berets, Luke Denman and Airan Berry, said they were barred from the secretive jailhouse proceedings Friday night in what they consider a violation of their constitutional rights to a defense.


Associated Press writer Eric Tucker contributed to this report.

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