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Former Green Beret charged with spying for Russia

Tom Winter and Pete Williams
The Department of Justice headquarters stands on February 19, 2020 in Washington, DC.
Drew Angerer | Getty Images

A former U.S. Army Green Beret conspired with Russia's foreign intelligence arm, the GRU, providing them with national defense information from 1996 to 2011, federal prosecutors said Friday in an indictment.

Peter Rafael Dzibinski Debbins, of Gainesville, Virginia, faces a single count of conspiracy to gather or deliver defense information to aid a foreign government. He faces a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted.

Debbins first visited Russia when was 19 years old, according to the federal indictment. His mother was born in the Soviet Union, and he met his wife in Chelyabinsk, Russia, where the couple later married. His father-in-law was a former an officer in the Russian military.

Debbins, 45, was born in Minnesota. It was unclear Friday whether he has an attorney.

According to the indictment, Debbins was slowly groomed and indoctrinated into the Russian intelligence apparatus starting in December 1996 when Debbins traveled to Chelyabinsk as part of an independent study program, according to the indictment filed in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Virginia.

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He was assigned a code name by Russian intelligence agents and signed a document saying he wanted to serve Russia, the Department of Justice said.

Debbins allegedly shared classified information about his time in the Special Forces, including names and information on his former team members that Russian agents could evaluate and possibly approach those people to see if they would cooperate.

"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. "As this indictment reflects, we will be steadfast and dogged in holding such individuals accountable."

The investigation was conducted with the help of the FBI, Army Counterintelligence, the U.K.'s Metropolitan Police and their internal security apparatus, MI5.

According to prosecutors, a member of the Russian intelligence service contacted Debbins and later set up a meeting in 1996. Debbins was taught tradecraft and was given an assignment to get the names of four nuns at a Catholic church that Debbins visited, a task he accomplished at the behest of a Russian intelligence officer.

When Debbins graduated from the University of Minnesota in September 1997, he returned to Russia and again met with Russian intelligence, which gave him the code name "Ikar Lesnikov." and signed a statement saying he wished to serve Russia.

Debbins joined the U.S. Army in July 1998, and before he left Russia, he was given a telephone number to use with his code name to contact the GRU.

Then, in 1999, when Debbins was on leave from a tour in South Korea, he returned to Russia and reached out to one of his Russian intelligence handlers. At that meeting, he apparently provided information about his platoon, the unit's assignment and its mission.

Debbins told the Russian he wanted to leave the Army, but his handler encouraged him to stay, according to charging documents.

The Russians questioned him and asked if he was actually a spy for the U.S., which Debbins apparently denied, saying he loved and was committed to Russia.

He allegedly told the Russians that the U.S. was too dominant in the world and needed to be cut down to size.

— NBC News' Alicia Victoria Lozano contributed.