WASHINGTON — A former Green Beret officer pleaded guilty in federal court in Northern Virginia on Wednesday to conspiring with Russian intelligence officers and providing them with classified information as part of a sophisticated spying operation dating back more than two decades.
Prosecutors said the man, Peter Rafael Dzibinski Debbins, 45, of Gainesville, Va., had worked secretly for the Russians for more than a decade and even joined the United States Army’s Special Forces at their urging. As part of his arrangement with the Russians, he was given a code name and signed a statement agreeing to help that country.
Mr. Debbins “violated this country’s highest trust by passing sensitive national security information to the Russians,” said John C. Demers, the head of the Justice Department’s National Security Division. He said Mr. Debbins “betrayed his oath, his country and his Special Forces team members with the intent to harm the United States and help Russia.”
Mr. Debbins, who held top security clearances, failed a polygraph, people familiar with the case said. That prompted the sensitive investigation and ultimately a criminal charge accusing him of violating the espionage statute. He was arrested in August.
Prosecutors said that Mr. Debbins “considered himself pro-Russian and a loyal son of Russia” and believed the United States was “too dominant in the world and needed to be cut down to size.” At one point, Mr. Debbins said he provided information to the Russians because he was “angry” and “bitter” about his military service.
Mr. Debbins is scheduled to be sentenced on Feb. 26 and faces a maximum penalty of life in prison.
It can take years, if not decades, to detect spies. In Mr. Debbins’s case, he appears to have been first recruited when he traveled to Russia in 1996 as part of an independent study program and lived in Chelyabinsk, near a Russian Air Force base.
During that time, prosecutors said, Mr. Debbins met with a Russian intelligence officer and the two discussed his plans for military service.
After graduating from the University of Minnesota, Mr. Debbins went to Russia the next year and eventually committed to work for the country, signing a statement that he wanted to help Russia.
According to the extraordinarily detailed indictment, Mr. Debbins met his wife, whose father was a Russian military officer, in Chelyabinsk. The pair married that year, and she was naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 2010.
Mr. Debbins was on active duty in the U.S. Army from 1998 until 2005. In June 2003, he was assigned as a Special Forces captain stationed in Germany. Prosecutors said Mr. Debbins was deployed in 2004 to Azerbaijan, where he was investigated for an undisclosed security violation and removed from his command.
Mr. Debbins’s security clearance was suspended, and he was honorably discharged in 2005. He served in the Army’s inactive reserve from December 2005 until 2010. After he was discharged, prosecutors said, he lived in Minnesota and worked for a Ukrainian steel manufacturer and a transportation company.
Prosecutors said Mr. Debbins gave Russian intelligence operatives information about chemical Special Forces units and the names of former Special Forces team members. The Russians used the names to try to evaluate whether any of them would also cooperate with their intelligence services. Mr. Debbins thought there was at least one person they could approach.
During his time in the military, he met frequently with his Russian handlers. In July 2000, Mr. Debbins traveled to Russia, where an intelligence agent offered him $1,000. Mr. Debbins at first rejected the payment, saying he had a “true love for Russia.” But he changed his mind and later took the money, signing for it using his code name.