On the indictment of Peter Debbins, ex-Green Beret, for a “Russia espionage conspiracy”

The United States needs to be more vigilant in counterintelligence


Yesterday, in a classic Friday afternoon data-dump, the Department of Justice released a statement on the indictment of Peter Rafael Dzibinski Debbins, a former US Special Forces officer, for “[conspiring] to provide national defense information to Russian intelligence.” 

The indictment details how Debbins, 45, between December 1996 and January 2011, was recruited by Russian intelligence and cultivated into a source of intelligence and an access agent. The story begins when Debbins, whose mother was Soviet-born (he sometimes identifies her as being from eastern Ukraine), starts traveling to Russia during his college summers to study Russian. While there, he meets a girl whose father is a Russian military officer, mentions he’s ROTC, and then is approached by a Russian intelligence officer, who assesses both his mindset and his willingness to do things when asked. Debbins identifies himself as a “son of Russia” with anti-American, pro-Russian views. He accomplishes the assignment with which he is tasked — a rather creepy exercise of going to a nearby Catholic church and getting the names of four nuns who are there. Debbins brings back the names, passes the test. His long relationship with Russian intelligence begins. 

* * * * *

When I saw the indictment, I knew exactly who to send it to first: a long-time friend with more than 15 years of active duty service to the United States (in a service branch I won’t identify), and whose name is distinctly of origin from a former Soviet bloc country. As a young, newly married officer, he was approached more than once after relocating for a new posting by individuals claiming to be from an odd Russian community organization, something to do with a church that made no sense. They offered help integrating into the community, moving in, whatever. Just here to help. It was clear to him that something wasn’t right, but they kept coming around until he made it quite clear that he knew what they were and they shouldn’t come back again. They didn’t. But when he moved again, more than a year later and to a totally different part of the country, a flier from the same group found itself tucked into his mailbox. A little reminder. It still makes him angry to talk about it. 

He was the first one to tell me about this pattern of approach — that having an ex-Soviet name makes you a special kind of target for Russian intelligence and various compatriot/front organizations — but he isn’t the only one. It’s clear at least some effort is made to identify and approach Americans in uniform who may be from post-Soviet countries or have some affiliation back to these areas. The vast majority aren’t amenable to such approaches, but Russia tries anyway. 

* * * * *

With that as a baseline, the overall story of Peter Debbins didn’t come as a surprise. But the details make it clear why he was such a lucky find. On his own in Russia, relatively young, from a family where he says he had 17 biological or adopted siblings, smitten with a new local girlfriend — it’s not exactly a challenging recruitment profile for a GRU officer. They made him feel special, that he was a part of something that he thought he was looking for. Identity. A place to fit in. Something to believe in. 

The indictment lays out how at critical points in his lifetime, Debbins’ Russian handlers guided his decisions — to join the army, to become special forces, to stop being a slouch after he got kicked out of the army (encouraged to leave, basically) and do something else useful for them. At every turn, they nudged him in a direction that would allow him to continue to be worthwhile for Russia. 

As news of the indictment spread, my phone blew up. Friends who are soldiers, veterans, former intelligence officers — everyone had stories and detail and context to add, but they all shared one common sentiment: “fuck that guy.” **

* * * * *

There’s a lot of rich detail in a relatively short indictment — and most of it is really bad if you know what context to put it in. He pursued position to be useful to Russia. He continued to travel to Russia to meet his handlers. He collected against his friends and teammates. He identified who else might be amenable to recruitment or have access to important information. 

“He was used as an access agent as well as producer of intelligence,” said one former senior intelligence officer with experience in Russian counterintelligence after reading the indictment. “They used him to spot assess other officers for potential recruitment by Russians, which means he provided assessment on his colleagues to include details about their biographic history, potential vulnerabilities and motivations, and — most disturbing — other officers’ access to intelligence of value to the Russians... So yeah, fuck that guy.”

It’s... bad. Especially in the context of his time in Special Forces. The mission of green berets is training partner forces for a wide range of global missions (everything from resistance to counterterrorism to SOF deployments to counter-trafficking work). So US Special Forces aggressively recruits naturalized Americans and first generation Americans like Debbins because they need their knowledge of culture and customs and language to be able to effectively deploy to lots of far-flung places. In many cases, these guys are an absolutely vital ingredient of building deep partnerships and making missions work. So in addition to the unbelievable betrayal of Debbins to collect on his brothers in the incredibly small SF community, his actions could also put countless other naturalized and first-generation servicemembers under unfair scrutiny. 

The period after Debbins initially leaves the army is a bit vague — sounds like not many of his SF teammates were sad to see him go, and he was pissed about being pushed out. He bums around feeling like a fallen star, and then he gets back in touch with his handlers. In August 2008, he travels back to Russia to meet his handlers again. I’d like to know more about the details of how they got in touch and the timeline of his travel.

Because, that’s right — August 2008. The same August 2008 when Russia invaded Georgia — where it just so happens Debbins served his last SF deployment before “exiting” the army. From local sources, there are some details about his time in Georgia that are major red flags. So anyway, here’s Debbins — who screwed up so much in Azerbaijan that he was removed from his deployment there, but was doing equally screwy things in neighboring Georgia at the same time — showing back up to meet with his Russian military intelligence handlers around the time the Russian military had about 100,000 troops engaged in an operation to crush Georgia. 

Here’s Debbins, “providing [Russian intelligence] with information about, among other things, his former Special Forces units mission and activities in Azerbaijan and Georgia” and also “the names of and information about a number of his former Special Forces team members.”

Why does this matter? Because of what the mission was. Part of that mission included training Georgia’s new elite forces, some of whom played crucial functions during the war. Another part included things like training border units for territorial defense measures, and training interior ministry units to act during a crisis. (Between 2002-2004, 10th Special Forces Group led a US-funded program called GTEP, which trained Georgian forces for deployment to Afghanistan and later Iraq as a NATO partner, and for the functions described above. The Marines would later take over the deployment training. After GTEP, there was another acronym and then another to describe this ongoing work.) 

So here’s f***ing Debbins, showing up in Russia and unloading all this info about US training and personnel in Georgia — plus who they trained, and for what, and what the weaknesses are, etc — during the conflict with Georgia. 

This is an unreal betrayal of his former teammates and his country, and of the trust our partner countries place in us.

I have A LOT of questions about this. 

Soon enough, Debbins f*cks off back to the States — and immediately applies for a new security clearance, while maintaining communications with Russia via an intermediary.

* * * * *

Mysteriously absent from the indictment is everything after January 2011 — you know, when Debbins somehow managed to get a new security clearance, moved to DC, and started operating as a contractor with access to Fort Meade and later to EUCOM and NATO and apparently allied facilities in the UK, all while wandering around Capitol Hill briefing staffers on “the Russian mindset” (some of his publicly available opinions include overt Russian propaganda like “there’s really no such thing as Ukraine” and “it’s all the fault of the West anyway.”)

“He probably was directed by [Russian intelligence] on the type of contractor job the Russians thought would give him the best access — a seeding operation of sorts,” said the counterintelligence officer mentioned earlier. “He was likely vetted and ops-tested to the highest level possible by the Kremlin, to include polygraphs, etc.”

Certainly, he got around. “I’m concerned with what Russian influence this guy has been able to sell to people he has briefed, or students he lectured at places like IWP, until recently,” one senior congressional defense staffer told me. Based on texts from friends and social media posts, a lot of people remembered coming in contact with Debbins.

The timeline of when Debbins had access to what isn’t entirely clear from open source information — but hey, what could go wrong with this guy floating around US and allied military commands during the invasion and annexation of Crimea, or the war in Syria — a period during which green berets were increasingly taking a lead in countering Russian aggression and influence in Europe, Syria, Afghanistan, and more? (**A subject we will look at in more detail in a piece tomorrow, on understanding the Russian bounties**) 

Oh, and Debbins was working on “hybrid warfare,” no less.

It all hurts my head. From what I’ve heard in the past 24 hours, Debbins’ teammates had expressed serious concerns about him, and yet somehow he was allowed to continue operating and get a new clearance. To be a known presence in military commands and intelligence facilities and on Capitol Hill. People I know were likely exposed by this guy. So were programs that are absolutely vital to US national security interests. And the wormwood of his whispers in the ears of defense and intelligence personnel all over the place — just ugh. Ugh. 

* * * * *

The DoJ statement about the indictment mentions Russia — but also China. Which is interesting. It references adversaries — plural. In podcasts and other appearances during his contractor phase, Debbins talks about Russia and China both — so who knows, maybe he branched out, or maybe what he was doing was just known to be of benefit to both. 

While Russia is aggressive and experienced at targeting and recruiting intelligence assets — China is 10 times more aggressive, has more “native” targets to work on (and coerce), has more resources to throw at the problem — not to mention the fact that it comes armed with its massive trove of hacked OPM data on everyone who has ever applied for a US security clearance. And both Russia and China target a broad range of potential assets — military/intelligence/government types, sure, but also academics, journalists, experts, business people, cultural and social influencers, so many more. 

This is a vital area for access to information, but also for influence. And we don’t do a good job tracking it, mapping it, and stopping it, because we just don’t take it seriously enough. It’s creating an unequal playing field between us and our adversaries. And it’s infuriating, because it leaves so many of our people exposed to threats they are unprepared for.

“Our current counterintelligence training isn’t good enough — how to recognize and report it through proper escalation procedures is what matters most,” offers the former counterintelligence officer. “The biggest issue is not reporting weird shit that happens. Because then security teams can’t identify patterns.” 

We should be telling our active duty troops things like “if you have a Russian or Ukrainian or Chinese last name, you’re a big target.” We should be telling veterans and active duty troops alike not to go to Russia for vacation, or you might end up like that Whelan guy rotting in a Russian prison because he thought Russia was pretty cool and because they had been targeting and monitoring him since his first trip to a Moscow. We should be briefing members of Congress and their staff better about what soft approaches from intelligence officers look like, and when foreign influence is something more than lobbying. We should be briefing spouses and families about what soft approaches look like — not to make everybody paranoid, but so they can be better informed and better defended, and know how to report things that are weird so that we have a better ability to see the threats that are coming against us and harden our targets. We should be putting out guidance and training for universities and academics and business people and artists. 

We should be defending our people.

But we don’t. 

There are real consequences for failing to identify people like Debbins, and allowing them to operate and influence our overall policy environment, and collect information from inside networks of important individuals and programs. And the position we let him have gave him access to NATO and our allies, as well. I say again — ugh. 

So I won’t be very surprised when there is a part 2 of the Debbins indictment, covering his activities since his rebirth as a contractor. And it will be... bleak.

But in the meantime, it’s hard not offer a +1 on “fuck that guy.”

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Photo of Debbins on his first trip to Russia, which he provided to IWP.

** Great Power apologies for the use of occasional profanities which nonetheless accurately reflect the views of sources and writers