A former Army Green Beret who admitted divulging military secrets to Russia over a 15-year period was sentenced to more than 15 years in prison Friday on espionage charges.
The sentence of 15 years and 8 months imposed on Peter Dzibinski Debbins, 46, of Gainesville, Virginia, by U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton was largely in line with the 17-year term sought by prosecutors. Defense lawyers sought a 5-year term.
Debbins' lawyer, David Benowitz, argued that Debbins caused minimal damage and that Russian agents had blackmailed Debbins by threatening to expose his same-sex attractions in a military era in which “don't ask, don't tell” was still in force.
Debbins, at Friday's sentencing hearing in Alexandria, offered an apology of sorts in which he largely emphasized how he was victimized by the GRU, the Russian intelligence service, and said he's put himself at danger of retaliation at their hands for admitting his service to them.
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“I have suffered in lonely silence for 25 years,” Debbins said. As for the danger he faces from the GRU, he said, “The GRU does not make threats; they keep promises.”
Prosecutors, in seeking a 17-year term, said Debbins never told the FBI anything about being blackmailed during 20 hours of interviews. They said he's fabricated the excuse and that his original explanation of his motive is far more likely, that he was bitter about his time in the Army and that he considered himself a "loyal son of Russia."
And they said the very fact that a Special Forces soldier agreed to betray his country is just as damaging as any particular information he betrayed.
“The world has now observed that Russia successfully placed an espionage recruit within the elite U.S. Army Special Forces, a propaganda victory for Russia at the expense of the reputation of the Special Forces,” prosecutors Thomas Traxler and James Trump wrote in their sentencing brief.
Debbins’ relationship with Russian intelligence dates to 1996 and spanned 15 years, Debbins admitted back November when he pleaded guilty to violating the federal Espionage Act. It began when he was an ROTC student at the University of Minnesota and on a visit to Russia gave a handler there the names of four Catholic nuns he had visited after a Russian intelligence agent told him the nuns were involved in cult activity.
In later years, he provided details about activities of his Special Forces unit overseas and the names of fellow Special Forces members.
Debbins entered active-duty Army service in 1998 and by then had already committed in writing to serve the Russians and had been assigned the code name “Ikar Lesnikov."
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.
He later joined the Special Forces and served there until 2004, when he was a captain assigned to Azerbaijan. But he was dishonorably discharged for a security violation, specifically for relocating his wife to Azerbaijan and providing her with a U.S. government cell phone.
In 2008, he traveled to Russia and gave intelligence agents information about old Special Forces unit's activities in Georgia and Azerbaijan. A damage assessment of what Debbins disclosed was filed under seal — Debbins said in sentencing papers that he thought he only gave the Russians information they already knew.
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.
Raj Parekh, acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, whose office prosecuted the case, said in a statement after the hearing that “the defendant’s brazen disclosures to Russian intelligence agents jeopardized U.S. national security and threatened the safety of his fellow servicemembers. This prosecution underscores our firm resolve to hold accountable those who betray their sworn oath and bring them to justice for their exceptionally serious crimes.”