Former Green Beret with ties to Minnesota pleads guilty to espionage charges

Peter Debbins was born and raised in Minnesota, but according to an unsealed federal indictment, the former Green Beret has been talking to Russian intelligence agents for 20 years, had a secret code name, and considered himself a "son of Russia."

A former Army Green Beret pleaded guilty Wednesday to divulging military secrets to Russia about his Special Forces unit’s activities in former Soviet republics.

Peter Rafael Dzibinski Debbins, 45, of Gainesville, Virginia, pleaded guilty to a charge under the federal Espionage Act at a hearing in U.S. District Court in Alexandria.

He faces up to life in prison when he is sentenced in February.

Debbins, a Minnesota native, had a 15-year relationship with Russian intelligence, dating back to 1996 when he was an ROTC student at the University of Minnesota and on a visit to Russia for an independent study program gave a handler there the names of four Catholic nuns he had visited, according to the charges against him. Shortly thereafter, Russian agents assigned him a code name, “Ikar Lesnikov.”

Debbins told Russian intelligence he considered himself a “son of Russia,” and “thought that the United States was too dominant in the world and needed to be cut down to size,” according to the indictment. He even offered to take a polygraph test to prove his Russian loyalty when one handler accused him of being a double agent for the U.S.

“Our country entrusted Debbins with the responsibility and training to protect it from its adversaries,” said G. Zachary Terwilliger, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, whose office prosecuted the case, in a statement. “Debbins betrayed that trust and betrayed his fellow service members by conspiring to provide national defense information to Russian intelligence operatives.”

Debbins’s lawyer and family members who attended Wednesday’s hearing did not comment after the hearing.

He joined the Army as an active duty officer in 1998 and served through 2005, the last two years as a Special Forces officer — a career path that his Russian handlers encouraged.

He was discharged and lost his security clearance after violating protocols while on assignment in Azerbaijan, including bringing his wife with him to the country and allowing her to use a government-issued cellphone, according to officials.

As a civilian, he later worked for military contractors in counterintelligence roles, including work as a Russian linguist.

The indictment alleges he provided information and names of his fellow Special Forces members while he was on assignment in Azerbaijan and Georgia. Debbins admitted that the agents used the information to evaluate whether other Special Forces officers could be persuaded to cooperate with Russia, and that he identified one individual in particular he believed might be receptive.

Debbins’s 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.

In a handwritten confession filed in court, Debbins wrote that in 1997, he gave Russian intelligence a signed statement saying that “I want to serve Russia.”

“I had a messianic vision for myself in Russia, that I was going to free them from their oppressive government, so I was flattered when they reached out to me,” Debbins wrote.

In the statement of facts issued made public Wednesday, though, Debbins admitted that he held pro-Russian and anti-American political views.

Debbins received nominal payments for his information, even though he initially refused an offer of a $1,000 cash payment. In one meeting with Russian intelligence, he accepted a bottle of Cognac and a Russian military uniform as payment, according to the indictment.

He also admitted in the statement of facts that he was motivated in part by bitterness over his Army service and the potential opportunities to make business contacts in Russia.