Peter Debbins, Shrink-Wrapped Spy

Update: Debbins was sentenced to 188 months, slightly less than the government had requested. 

Peter Debbins, the former Special Forces guy who pled guilty to spying for GRU through 2011 last November, will be sentenced today at 10AM ET. Because the sentencing hearing will be in person in the press-stifling Eastern District of VA, there will be scant coverage of the hearing. So I wanted to make an observation beforehand, in case it’s useful for anyone who does show up to EDVA.

The government’s sentencing memo, which was entirely unredacted, basically gave Debbins some credit for cooperating, while at the same time suggesting that they didn’t really believe he had stopped spying at precisely the moment, in 2011, when a renewed TS/SCI clearance would have made him more useful as a spy.

Debbins’ sentencing memo basically argued that evil Russians exploited his same-sex attraction to psychologically torture him, which is why he spied.

Mr. Debbins is extremely self-reflective, recognizing that he had “excellent work performance, high social standing, many friends, and a happy family,” but that on the inside, “with all this psychological and physiological torture” all he wanted was to “unload these racing thoughts to pass my polygraph, without considering the legal ramifications.” Id. Looking back, Mr. Debbins “regrets going to Russia” because he should have known better how “its nefarious government regards people as an expendable commodity, ubiquitous with no intrinsic value and I was especially vulnerable.” Id. More powerfully, Mr. Debbins “regrets not confronting my mental illness earlier and am so heartbroken for all the pain and suffering it caused my family and country.” Id. In his final paragraphs, Mr. Debbins exclaims that the “the Russian GRU ruined my honor and potential as an American,” and asks this Court for its leniency to “restore to me what the Kremlin stole from me, my integrity as an American,” so that “Americans who wish to escape a similar situation are not hopelessly trapped.”

He submitted a declaration describing the symptoms of the “insanity” that caused him to spy.

I descended into insanity unable to distinguish between reality and fantasy, and from 2014 until my arrest, I experienced the following:

  • Suffered from insomnia which gave me 3 hours of sleep a night
  • Had bizarre dreams, night terrors, and hallucinations of meeting with the GRU. I even thought they were in my house and I removed the smoke detectors believing they were surveillance devices.
  • Crossed moral boundaries
  • Was always in a manic state of high energy
  • My mind would race constantly
  • Conducted trances to enter into the “subconscious universe”
  • Believed I could communicate via telepathy and dreams
  • Excessively used caffeine, alcohol, and sleeping medication
  • Believed in signs and omens
  • Was paranoid of the GRU and loved ones. I thought my wife and daughter were working for the GRU, which may explain why I didn’t pass the 2019 FBI polygraph. The FBI didn’t believe me when I told them that I had no post-2010 contacts
  • Believed the souls of my aunts and uncles who perished from Stalin’s famines were living through me
  • Created fantasies of past misdeeds needing atonement
  • Had delusions of becoming a double agent
  • As a CI professional, I was becoming that what I gazed upon and demonized myself as having affinity to Russia.

The government’s response to Debbins’ submission, which was heavily redacted, basically called bullshit on Debbins’ explanations, laying out with a declaration from one of the FBI Agents who interviewed Debbins over a series of meetings from July to December 2019 how Debbins’ current claims to be motivated by shame about his same-sex attraction conflicts with his comments throughout 2019, when Debbins said he spied out of loyalty to Russia.

During the last interview conducted on December 20,2019, I asked Debbins, “what was the biggest thing … that you think they used, overtly, covertly, implicitly, to encourage the relationship?” Debbins answered, “They just let me feel validated. You know … my meaning … was as a loyal son of Russia. Uhm, I felt, you know, encouragement from them.” Debbins explained, “my mother being Russian, … they … help[ed] reinforce that self-image. “

I assumed, as I know several other people tracking this case assumed, that the large redactions in the government filing were — as most redactions in EDVA are — about national security. I assumed that the boilerplate in the motion to seal the government response would, like most boilerplate in EDVA, discuss the need to seal for national security purposes.

But it doesn’t. It reveals that those sealed sections address Debbins’ confidential health information, his psychiatric diagnosis.

The United States seeks to file the Government’s Response Brief under seal because it contains information from two filings that the Court recently sealed at the request of the defense. See Order (May 10, 2021) (Dkt. No. 52). As the defense explained in its motion to seal, those filings contained confidential health information regarding the defendant.

Sure, the government cheated in one redaction in their footnote 3, which probably rebuts Debbins’ claim to have been fully cooperative with the FBI. But otherwise, we should assume the large swaths of redacted material address Debbins’ psychiatric evaluation.

That’s important, because Debbins is relying on a psychiatric assessment by David Charney.

This behavior from years ago corroborates Dr. Charney’s psychiatric assessment of Mr. Debbins as it relates to his [redacted]


This Court is extremely familiar with other such espionage cases, like that of Robert Hanssen, whose espionage activities led to both the imprisonment and deaths of Americans. Another individual, Aldrich Ames, compromised more highly classified CIA assets than any other spy in history, until Robert Hanssen came along. Both Hanssen and Ames received life sentences. Earl Pitts, with whom Dr. Charney is intimately familiar, sold secrets to the Soviets and received hundreds of thousands of dollars for his information. Mr. Pitts received a twenty-seven (27) year sentence. Brian Regan wrote letters to Saddam Hussein, Libya, and China offering to sell information for millions of dollars. He had downloaded tens of thousands of classified documents and was arrested on a plane to Switzerland with the documents. He was sentenced to life in prison after being found guilty by a jury.


As such, considering these facts and the psychiatric assessment by Dr. Charney, Mr. Debbins is deserving of a sentence significantly below the low-end of the guidelines.

David Charney is a psychiatrist who worked with the defense teams of Earl Pitts, Robert Hanssen, and Brian Regan — several of those spies that, Debbins is arguing, he is not as bad as. Charney has a non-profit pitching an alternative approach for insider threats, reconciliation, which involves lowering the costs of spies turning themselves in.

Charney alluded to working with Debbins in a December Spy Talk piece in which he argued that rather than the obvious motivations (in Debbins’ case, that he’s loyal to Russia), people actually spy for subconscious reasons only accessible with the help of a shrink.

Trying to understand the psychology of a mole is tougher than it first appears. The acronym MICE is bandied about in intelligence community circles because it seems to cover all the bases of why trusted people turn coat: Money, Ideology, Compromise, Ego. From my experience with year-long interviews of three caught spies, including the notorious Robert Hanssen, and lately with a fourth spy I cannot yet name, I believe the acronym MICE does not suffice.

Human beings are far more complex than the limits of the acronym. There are deeper layers that, in fact, may be far more important. Those may not be fully clear even to the spies themselves: They are subconscious. To simplify things for themselves, disaffected spies try to apply a veneer to their motivations that seems internally plausible. They will seize upon rationalizations that elevate their motivations to appear to serve higher purposes, which is when ideology comes into play. Ideology provides a seemingly coherent higher purpose to their life choices, a morally glorious dimension to their decisions to cross the line. [my emphasis]

Charney’s theory (which he’s pitching to the IC) argues that if only spies can turn themselves in early in their career without the risk of prison time, it’ll lead more spies to do so when they first come to regret their decision.

When someone decides to step over the line to become an insider spy, he or she now find themselves stuck and trapped. It dawns on them that they have no way out. They come to realize it’s unthinkable to beg to be released from their handler because too many bad things can happen. Think of the Mafia.

By the same token, to turn themselves in to their home agency’s security office offers no better prospects. The insider spy cannot expect to be welcomed back. More likely, they spy will face severe punishments leading to career termination and everyone in the intelligence community knows this.

Being stuck in this no-win situation causes the insider spy to resign to stay put, take their chances, and hope for the best. Lacking any viable alternatives, they are forced deeper into the arms of the hostile intelligence service that owns them. And the damages they inflict on our national security accumulate year by year.

What if there were a way out? What if there were an alternative pathway (reconciliation) so an insider spy could voluntarily turn himself or herself in? What if there were a recognized, safe, government-sanctioned exit mechanism? Imagine such a thing.

If reconciliation were made available, what could possibly motivate an insider spy to consider it? The single most important motivator would be that he will not be sentenced to prison. From the perspective of an insider spy, prison would be a deal-breaker. [emphasis original]

Charney may well be right that the US government’s draconian approach to national security crimes ends up doing as much harm as good. But Charney has at the very least a predisposition — and possibly a significant financial incentive — to tell a story about Debbins that blames The Closet for his spying rather than ego, rather than the pride in being Russian that Debbins used to explain his spying before Charney got involved. And Debbins’ lawyer has an incentive to blame The Closet rather than Russian nationalism as well, if only to explain away lingering government concerns that there’s no way Debbins would have stopped spying just when the spying became really useful to Russia, when he got his TS/SCI clearance.

As the government notes in their response, however, Charney’s theory doesn’t apply here because Debbins only turned himself in after failing a polygraph.

There’s another problem with applying Charney’s theories to Debbins. Debbins is right that he’s different than those others in Charney’s comparison set: Pitts, Regan, and (especially) Hanssen. Debbins was not recruited at a time when he was disillusioned with his career, like Hanssen was. Rather, Debbins was recruited from a young age and most of the things he did before 2011 — before he got his TS/SCI restored — were largely grooming activities, grooming activities that largely governed the decisions that put Debbins in a national security position in the first place.

I assume the government makes some of these points in the redacted sections. So the hidden stuff is fairly explainable, once you realize that this is largely about Charney’s arguments about spying.

It’s the unredacted stuff in the government’s response that is still inexplicable. When someone reneges on a statement of responsibility, the government never blows that off in sentencing filings. When Mike Flynn reneged on responsibility for lying to the FBI, for example, prosecutors got all of DOJ to buy off on a much harsher sentencing memo, even though it would have no impact on Flynn’s sentencing guidelines.

Here, however, the government basically argues Debbins’ attempts to back out of things he said when he pled in November will all get accounted for in the sentence they requested before he disclaimed responsibility.

The Government submits that Debbins’s failure to accept responsibility for his conduct and false statements support a guidelines sentence of seventeen years.1

1 The Government does not request that the Court revise the guidelines calculation to take away the 3-level reduction that the probation officer credited Debbins for his timely plea under U.S.S.G. § 3E1.1. Instead, the Government asks the Court to consider Debbins’s failure to accept responsibility and false statements in imposing a substantial sentence within the guidelines range, pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a).

Effectively, the government is doing the unheard of thing of having someone dismiss the damage he did to national security concerns with no cost imposed. In EDVA, no less!

The debate at EDVA today may be about Charney’s theories (though I would be shocked if Judge Claude Hilton buys any of this — I wouldn’t be surprised if he sentenced Debbins to more than the 17 years the government is requesting). But the real drama, in my opinion, has to do with why the government is acting so uncharacteristically forgiving.

Peter Debbins Claims He Stopped Spying for Russia in 2011

The government has submitted its sentencing memorandum for Peter Debbins, the former Special Forces guy who pled guilty to spying for Russia’s GRU last November. They are asking for 17 years, arguing that gives him a slightly favorable sentence because he admitted to the spying, but one in line with other recent sentences for people who spied for foreign countries.

The memorandum provides more specifics about where Debbins was assigned and deployed when, how many of his colleagues he IDed to GRU as potential recruiting targets, and what was the security violation that got his clearance suspended in 2005 (he moved his wife to Azerbaijan and gave her a US government phone). It describes how, in spite of that past violation, he was still granted at TS/SCI clearance in 2010, shortly before (according to Debbins’ admissions) he stopped spying.

In January 2010, the U.S. Army notified Debbins via letter that he had been granted a TS/SCI security clearance. Id. ¶ 54. The letter, however, noted concerns about his business connections and father-in-law, and his prior relief of command in Azerbaijan. Id. It cautioned that a foreign intelligence service could exploit such situations and emphasized his “responsibilities for reporting any possible contact by representatives or citizens of foreign countries.”

An appendix includes a picture they found of Debbins wearing a Russian military uniform in 1994.

DOJ notes that Debbins claims he quit spying in 2011.

Debbins has claimed that his conspiracy with the Russian intelligence agents did not continue past January 2011.

But it’s clear they don’t believe him.

For example, they describe how one GRU officer used his business activities as cover for spying and then lay out how Debbins was discussing “business” with that person in 2010, shortly before he claims to have quit spying for Russia.

During this time, Debbins knew that RIS 7 used business affiliations as a cover for Russian intelligence activities. In either the 2008 or 2010 meetings, “RIS 7 provided [Debbins] with the name of his cover company and gave [Debbins] his contact information.” Id. ¶ 46. “RIS 7 instructed [Debbins] to tell his family that he was working with the cover company to explain any calls that he might have with the Russian intelligence service.” Id.

After Debbins returned to the United States from Russia in September 2010, he began exchanging a series of emails with the Russian National. See id. ¶ 60. Many of the emails referenced, at least on their face, the infrastructure project or other business projects.4 See id.

Through these emails, Debbins kept the Russian National apprised of his efforts to move from Minnesota to the Washington, D.C. area. In early November 2010, the Russian National emailed Debbins and stated that he had not heard from him in a long time. See id. ¶ 61. The Russian National specifically noted that “Ivan”—the first name of RIS 7—sent his greetings, see id., an apparent effort to prompt a response from Debbins. Sure enough, Debbins responded to the Russian National three days later, noting that he was about to move to “the capital.” See id. ¶ 62. Then, on January 3, 2011, Debbins emailed the Russian National, informing him that he had moved to “the capital” and that he was working on their business matter. See id. ¶ 63.

The sentencing memo describes how Debbins moved to DC without a job, and only then — in the wake of these conversations about “business” with a known GRU officer — applied to (but didn’t get) a bunch of agency positions, before he settled for military intelligence.

During this time, Debbins moved from Minnesota to Northern Virginia and began applying for positions in the U.S. intelligence community. He moved first to Virginia Beach in December 2010 and then to Manassas in January 2011. See Ex. A, ¶ 34. On or about December 17, 2010, Debbins applied for four positions at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). See id. ¶¶ 9-10(a). The following month, Debbins applied for seventeen positions at the National Security Agency. See id. ¶ 11. Debbins did not obtain any of these positions. See id. ¶ 10-11.

Debbins ultimately secured a position with an intelligence branch of the U.S. Army


Throughout this period from 2011 to 2019, Debbins also applied unsuccessfully for numerous other positions in the U.S. intelligence community. As detailed in the attached declaration, he unsuccessfully applied for positions at the CIA and DIA. See Ex. A, ¶¶ 10, 12. In 2015, he applied to be a Special Agent at the FBI but later withdrew his name from consideration. See id. ¶ 13. After the 2016 presidential election, Debbins even applied to the White House, seeking to obtain a position on the National Security Council. See id. ¶ 14.

The sentencing memo doesn’t say it — but WaPo has reported that he had ties to both Mike Flynn and Erik Prince, who were being cultivated by Russia at the time he applied for the NSC job, and in the job he would have played a key Russian policy role in the Administration that Russia helped get elected.

Debbins was a graduate of and teacher at the D.C.-based Institute of World Politics, a small but influential school in conservative foreign policy circles. Former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn and military contractor Erik Prince both have ties to the school.

In early 2017, according to emails reviewed by The Washington Post, Debbins told a friend that he was a candidate for a position on the National Security Council, “specifically Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Russia and Central Asia.”

The sentencing memo even describes how, for the entire time Debbins claims to have quit, he was still a security risk because of his past spying.

To make matters worse, Debbins lied about and concealed his contacts with the Russian intelligence agents for nearly a quarter of a century, even after the alleged conspiracy. By deliberately concealing the contacts during background investigations (when he had a legal obligation to report them), Debbins was able to obtain employment in sensitive positions in the U.S. intelligence community, with access to highly classified information, from April 2011 until July 2019. Debbins, a serious security vulnerability considering his history of espionage activity, put national security further at risk by lying and deceiving his way into those positions. Debbins did not reveal his contacts with the Russian intelligence agents to law enforcement until after he failed a polygraph as part of a security clearance reinvestigation in early July 2019.

A person does not harbor (as the sentencing memo describes) an ideological affinity for Russia and only quit spying once he restores his TS/SCI clearance.

And if the government, at any time over the next seventeen years (or however long his sentence) finds evidence to prove that he kept spying, then the boilerplate in his plea deal will mean they only need to prove by a preponderance of evidence that he was lying when he claimed to have quit spying to declare the deal void and sentence him to life in prison. And if that happened, that would make it easy to prosecute him for sharing what presumably would have been Top Secret information without having to risk that Top Secret information at trial.

Peter Debbins claims he quit spying in 2011. But if DOJ ever obtains proof he did not, then his lenient seventeen year sentence would very quickly become a life sentence.

Peter Debbins Pleads

Peter Debbins — who was charged with spying for Russia in August — pled guilty today. The statement of facts he pled to almost exactly maps his indictment, with two main additions. The statement explains the EDVA venue I was so so interested in.

From in or around December 1996 to in or around January 2011, in an offense begun and committed outside of the jurisdiction of any particular State or district of the United States, the defendant, also known as “Ikar Lesnikov,” who after the conduct required for the offense occurred was arrested in and first brought to the Eastern District of Virginia, and whose last known address is in the Eastern District of Virginia, did unlawfully and knowingly conspire with others to communicate, deliver, and transmit to a foreign government, to wit: the Russian Federation (hereinafter, “Russia”), and representatives, officers, agents, employees, subjects, and citizens thereof, directly and indirectly, documents, writings, and information relating to the national defense of the United States, with the intent and reason to believe that such documents, writings, and information were to be used to the injury of the United States and to the advantage of a foreign government, namely, Russia.

Thanks for explaining that, DOJ! Debbins was in the UK when they first started this investigation, which gave the government the choice to land him in the least friendly venue for spies and leakers.

In addition, there’s several paragraphs that seem inconsistent with the fact that the information he admitted sharing was classified Secret.

2. As of 2008, Executive Order 12958 signed on April 17, 1995, as amended by Executive Order 13292 signed on March 25, 2003, governed the system for classifying, safeguarding, and declassifying national security information.’ Under that Executive Order, national security information was classified as “TOP SECRET,” “SECRET,” or “CONFIDENTIAL.” National security information was information owned by, produced by, produced for, and under the control of the U.S. Government, and that was classified as follows:

a. Information was classified as TOP SECRET if its unauthorized disclosure reasonably could be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security that the original classification authority was able to identify and describe.

b. Information was classified as SECRET if its unauthorized disclosure reasonably could be expected to cause serious damage to the national security that the original classification authority was able to identify and describe.

c. Information was classified as CONFIDENTIAL if its unauthorized disclosure reasonably could be expected to cause damage to the national security that the original classification authority was able to identify and describe.

3. Access to national security information classified at any level could be further restricted through compartmentation in Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI) categories. Only individuals possessing both the appropriate security clearance and specific, additional permissions could have authorized access to SCI.

That suggests there’s more he shared that was far more sensitive, information DOJ doesn’t want to lay out (unsurprisingly). If so, that’s covered by this boilerplate language.

This statement of facts includes those facts necessary to support the plea agreement between the defendant and the United States. It does not include each and every fact known to the defendant or to the United States, and it is not intended to be a full enumeration of all of the facts surrounding the defendant’s case.

That said, the plea itself emphasizes that the NDI he shared with Russia was classified Secret.

As set forth in the accompanying statement of facts, the national defense information that is the subject of this conspiracy and the terms of this plea agreement was, and is, classified at the Secret level.

While that still exposes him to a possible life sentence, the plea puts his guidelines at 39, with the possibility that he’ll get a two or three point admission of guilt reduction, which would put him in a 188 to 235 month range. But the government is giving him no guarantees at all.

The United States and the defendant have not agreed on any further sentencing issues, whether related to the Sentencing Guidelines or the factors listed in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), other than those set forth above or elsewhere in this Plea Agreement. Any stipulation on a Guidelines provision does not limit the parties’ arguments as to any other Guidelines provisions or sentencing factors under Section 3553(a), including arguments for a sentence within or outside the advisory Guidelines range found by the Court at sentencing.

The government included intentional incomplete testimony among the reasons it can breach the plea agreement at a preponderance of the evidence standard.

If the defendant withdraws from this agreement, or commits or attempts to commit any additional federal, state, or local crimes, or intentionally gives materially false, incomplete, or misleading testimony or information, or otherwise violates any provision of this agreement, then:

That may be boilerplate, but in this case it will ensure that Debbins honestly provides anything more sensitive about his relationship with Russia.

Again, none of that is surprising. It just suggests that if there’s something more here, DOJ isn’t going to reveal that.

Returning to Venue in the Peter Debbins Case

In my post on the Peter Debbins indictment, I noted with curiosity the EDVA venue for the former Special Forces guy charged with sharing information with GRU. Just one of the alleged acts, a January 3, 2011 email, took place in EDVA. I suggested that might mean Debbins would eventually be prosecuted for later acts, acts which took place in Virginia.

Several filings and the WaPo account of his detention hearing (not to mention the involvement of prosecutor David Aaron, one of the people who prosecuted Hal Martin, the guy originally accused of being the Shadow Brokers source) raise further questions whether that’s true.

According to the current story, DOJ discovered that Debbins had been recruited by Russia when he self-reported that recruitment in a SF-86 in July 2019. After that, FBI interviewed him 8 times; on July 11, 2019, they got him to describe that recruitment in a voluntary statement (PDF 5ff). As demonstrated below, the interactions with GRU officers map onto the indictment very closely (which is to say, in indicting Debbins, the government only told Debbins and his Russian handlers what he already told them).

That said, Debbins’ statement includes two later details: further emails with a guy named Nikolai, lasting until May 2011 (and therefore presumably extending venue in EDVA), and a description of GRU officers going to his Russian military officer father-in-law’s office in 2012, inquiring what Debbins was doing in DC, in response to which his wife’s father provided outdated information.

In December 2019, Debbins asked his Senator, Mike Rounds, to intercede in the investigation (PDF 10ff.), claiming that he couldn’t even get unclassified employment while the FBI was investigating. He also claimed that the FBI had told him “they [were] pretty well done with [his] case.” Debbins’ claim to Rounds had to have been false. His resume (PDF 16) shows he was continually employed in this period, working as an intelligence trainer for Cosolutions until January 2020 and then working as a Cyber Financial Crimes Project Manager for a Ukrainian American university after that. Which suggests he was trying to get his Senator to intervene based on a false representation, perhaps as a way to figure out what was really happening in the investigation.

The FBI also searched Debbins’ home in the UK and executed search warrants sometime after March 8, 2020 (to shift from a counterintelligence investigation to a criminal one, the FBI would want to parallel construct what they already knew with such searches).

To explain why they needed to detain Debbins now after letting him wander around freely for over a year after disclosing these decade old contacts, AUSA Thomas Traxler (who is also prosecuting Julian Assange) explained that they needed to corroborate his statement before arresting him.

Traxler said the government was “concerned” Debbins would flee over the past year but had to corroborate the statement. It would have been “premature” to arrest him any earlier, Traxler said.

The real thing that got Magistrate Judge John Anderson to deny Debbins bail was the list of things Debbins has done since the last act in his statement. Senior DIA CI Expert David Tomlinson described how, when Debbins worked at Booz Allen Hamilton from 2014 to 2016, he was read into one Special Access Program and six Alternative or Compensatory Control Measures (which are less classified but nevertheless restricted on a need-to-know basis). Defense Intelligence Senior Leader Joseph Simon described how Debbins’ training, both while in Special Forces and in his cybersecurity jobs since, would make it easy for him to flee if he were not detained. Both declarations make it clear that Debbins has been working on Russian language counterintelligence for almost a decade, precisely the kind of positions that would be most valuable to Russia. His resume further makes it clear he spent three years at Fort Meade and 20 months working for Booz at Quantico, VA.

It would be fairly remarkable if GRU were willing to let a former recruit work in such positions, with a signed admission of his involvement with them from years earlier, without asking for further cooperation.

All the declarations submitted for his detention hearing make clear the affiant is not revealing all he knows about this case.

Finally, as WaPo noted, in addition to having organizational ties that overlap with Mike Flynn and Erik Prince, Debbins told a friend he’d get a job in Donald Trump’s NSC.

In early 2017, Debbins told a friend via email that he was a candidate for a position on the National Security Council, “specifically Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Russia and Central Asia.”

It is not clear how serious his candidacy was; he never served in the Trump administration.

DOJ is not saying — and they might never say anything publicly if they wanted to obscure what damage Debbins has done and what they know or don’t know. DOJ could get Debbins to plead to facts he has already admitted to in his statement, and push for a stiff sentence based off classified declarations laying out related conduct.

But it sure seems likely his related conduct in EDVA extends beyond that one January 2011 email.

The EDVA Venue and the Peter Debbins Indictment

DOJ just rolled out the indictment of a former Special Forces officer for spying for Russia.

The general story is that GRU started recruiting Peter Rafael Dzibinski Debbins when he traveled to Russia via family ties when he was young. He went on to join the Army and then the Special Forces. Along the way, he told GRU about who was in his units and what their mission was. The timeline in the indictment starts in 1996, when Debbins traveled to Chelyabinsk as a student. Debbins met with GRU officers in Russia repeatedly; after he joined the Army he provided details of what his units did, including when he was stationed in Azerbijan in 2004, where his clearance was suspended and he was discharged from the Army.

After he was discharged, on his trips to Russia in 2008 and 2010, Debbins tried to drum up Russian business. The indictment seems to suggest he started to get cold feet in 2009, resisting the recruitment.

Beginning in April 2009, DEBBINS and [Russian Intelligence Officer] 7 began exchanging a series of emails that, on their face, referenced potential business opportunities. In an April 2009 email, RIS 7 encouraged DEBBINS to travel to Russia for a visit, but DEBBINS did not commit to the trip. Later, in August 2009, RIS sent an email to DEBBINS inviting DEBBINS to travel to Russia and offering to pay his expenses. DEBBINS, however, did not travel at that time.

Subsequent to that seeming moment of resistance, however, Debbins got a new TS/SCI security clearance and traveled to Russia to discuss business with someone linked to the GRU. He did not, as most recently instructed, bring a Field Manual, because (he said) he feared he’d be caught by DHS.

Nevertheless, his GRU handlers still pitched him on a business deal. On January 3, 2011, after being reminded of his ties to GRU, Debbins moved to DC and started working on the business deal with the Russian.

A January 3 email from Debbins to the business partner is the single thing that (presumably) happened in EDVA, and the single thing that happened in 2011, the last year of the scope of this indictment.

On January 3, 2011, DEBBINS sent the RUSSIAN NATIONAL an email stating that he had moved to “the capital,” meaning Washington, D.C., and that he was working on their business matter.

And yet, even though Debbins had closest ties to Minnesota for the span of this indictment (and could have gotten venue in North Carolina through Special Forces for some of the overseas stuff), the venue is EDVA.

That may be because that’s the easiest place to win a national security case.

Or it may be because what has happened since 2011, when Debbins has been traveling elite circles and working on cybersecurity, is of more interest to the government. [h/t Laura Rozen for both links] According to one online biography, Debbins was at Fort Meade from around 2012 to 2015 and then worked as a contractor since.

Later, I got a job working at Fort Meade as a Russian analyst and did that for three years. I then transitioned to working as a cyber instructor for CACI for another three years.

Which is to say it’s unclear whether this indictment is about what happened between 1996 and 2011 — the span covered by the indictment — or about what has happened since.