On August 21, Peter Rafael Dzibinski Debbins, a former Captain in the United States Army’s Special Forces, was arrested for espionage. Debbins worked with Russian intelligence, specifically the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff (GRU), Russia’s military intelligence service. The unsealed grand jury indictment tells us Debbins cooperated with the Russians beginning in 1997 and continuing through at least January 2011.
Seems like a Russian Hollywood Espionage Tale
The tale of Debbins is straight out of the pages of Hollywood; one might say it could be a spin-off of FX’s “The Americans.” His connection with the Soviet Union dates back to his mother, who was a naturalized U.S. citizen from the Soviet Union. In 1994, at the age of 19, Debbins was a student at the University of Minnesota and made his first trip to Russia. On a subsequent trip in 1996-97, at the age of 21, while participating in an independent study program in Chelyabinsk, Russia, Russian intelligence approached him and began assessing and testing him to determine his viability as an asset.
James A. Dawson, Acting Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI Washington Field Office shared, “According to the allegations, Mr. Debbins knowingly provided information to self-proclaimed members of Russia’s Intelligence Service, the GRU. As a member of the U.S. Armed Forces, the American people and his fellow service men and women should have been able to trust Debbins with secrets and information. Debbins allegedly fell very short of that and exploited his role in the military and his fellow service members to benefit one of our top adversaries for years. Today’s charges are another example of the dedicated and unrelenting efforts of the FBI and our partners, domestic and international, to aggressively pursue and bring to justice those who violate this sacred trust and place our national security at risk.”
The Intricacies and Patterns of Insider Threats
For those keeping score, this is the second individual, formerly associated with the U.S. Government indicted for espionage this month, the prior being Alexander Yuk Ching Ma and his clandestine relationship with China’s Ministry of State Security.
This case has a lot to unpack, as in order to grow on awareness of insider threats, it’s important to understand all of the intricacies and patterns. Russian contact with Debbins began at a very young age, and it progressed with formal recruitment and training in October 1997 through his military years and the years 2005-2010 when his “business” was with a GRU co-optee or front company, Eastern Marketing Solutions. Additionally, initial research has shown that Debbins was placed firmly within the defense and intelligence communities in the United States, United Kingdom, and NATO as a whole.
Public profiles of Debbins indicate employment with a variety of defense contractors, including Booz Allen, Mission Essential Personnel, CACI International, Horizon Leadership Group, and UK’s CoSolutions. What makes these last ten years especially noteworthy is his stature within the communities and his analysis, publications, and presentations made within the defense and intelligence world. This entire corpus must now be reviewed in light of the previous 25 years of documented collaboration with the GRU.
Russian Espionage Efforts to Recruit Peter Debbins
Every story has a beginning, and the Debbins and Russian espionage case is no exception.
The Russian Spotting and Assessing Dance 1996-97
The GRU approached Debbins in Chelyabinsk and asked if he would meet with Russian intelligence. He agreed. There was no arm twisting. Debbins declared that he was a “son of Russia” and that this, his third trip to Russia was, as were the prior two, to learn more about his mother’s birthplace. He described himself as “pro-Russian and anti-United States.” He also noted he had a Russian girlfriend. He went on to share his current participation in the U.S. Army’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) and how upon graduation, he would become an Army officer.
Elementary operational testing
Not knowing what they had in Debbins, but seeing potential, the GRU gave him an elementary task to determine his willingness to follow operational direction and to maintain discretion. He was instructed not to share the GRU discussions with his Russian girlfriend and was given a plausible cover story to share with her to explain his absences while meeting with the GRU.
The GRU elementary operational task was for Debbins to visit a Catholic church in Chelyabinsk and obtaining the names of the four nuns at the Church. He completed the task satisfactorily.
The GRU officers, ever mindful of the counterintelligence angle of their approach, asked Debbins what he had told his ROTC unit about his travels to Russia and his family’s Russian connections. Debbins claimed to have been discrete about this topic. The intel officer, taking no chances, instructed Debbins to not disclose he was meeting with Russian intelligence.
One may speculate that the GRU learned of Debbins and his ROTC participation long before their first meeting, given his girlfriend’s father was a member of the Russian military and living in Chelyabinsk. No doubt if Debbins was indiscreet and mentioned his discussions with the GRU, they were counting on his girlfriend to mention it to her father.
The modus operandi of every intelligence officer is to ask questions to which you already have the answers to test the veracity of the targeted individual in their discussions with you. The girlfriend’s father had assessed Debbins correctly. And Debbins confirmed his association with the U.S. military via the ROTC program and the University of Minnesota.
Debbins Fails to Self-report the GRU’s Approach
When Debbins left Chelyabinsk in early-1997, the GRU knew they had a recruitment prospect on the hook. A lot was riding on whether or not he reported their approach to his ROTC Unit.
The counterintelligence ramifications of Russian’s taking advantage of U.S. students studying abroad is not new, nor is it particularly noteworthy. While the indictment doesn’t tell us, one would expect the ROTC Unit to provide a defensive travel brief to all “study abroad” students. The Russians take advantage of the student’s presence and the few months a student is present is ample time to size up the prospective source.
With Debbins, the Russian’s had little at risk. If he reported the approach, the U.S. might demarche the Russian Embassy in Washington D.C. about harassing visiting U.S. students, and the Russian’s would shrug their shoulders and claim an over-eager Russian Air Force Base GRU contingent reaching out to all the foreign students in Chelyabinsk.
Debbins made life easy for them. He chose not to report his meetings with Russian intelligence.
Debbins Cements His Russian Relationship on his Espionage Path
This lack of self-reporting of an approach by a hostile intelligence entity is indicative to this counterintelligence mind of an individual who has tacitly agreed to meet again with the foreign intelligence entity should he return to Russia – and he would, he was in love with a young lady in Chelyabinsk. The GRU had Debbins right where they wanted him. Now they waited, hoping he would grab hold of that hook they left him on, climb the line, and jump into the GRU’s boat. They didn’t have to wait long. Debbins graduated from the University of Minnesota in September 1997, and received a reserve commission in the U.S. Army with an active duty start date of July 1998.
The indictment tells us that “between September 1997 and July 1998, he lived and worked in Russia.” During these ten months, Debbins married his girlfriend in Chelyabinsk, and the GRU formalized their clandestine relationship with their nascent asset, Peter Debbins.