Former Army Green Beret Pleads Guilty to Russian Espionage Conspiracy

 A former Army Green Beret pleaded guilty today to conspiring with Russian intelligence operatives to provide them with United States national defense information.

According to court documents, from December 1996 to January 2011, Peter Rafael Dzibinski Debbins, 45, of Gainesville, a former member of the U.S. Army, conspired with agents of a Russian intelligence service. During that time, Debbins periodically visited Russia and met with Russian intelligence agents. In 1997, Debbins was assigned a code name by Russian intelligence agents and signed a statement attesting that he wanted to serve Russia.

“Debbins today acknowledged that he violated this country’s highest trust by passing sensitive national security information to the Russians,” said John C. Demers, Assistant Attorney General for National Security.  “Debbins betrayed his oath, his country, and his Special Forces team members with the intent to harm the United States and help Russia.  Debbins’s guilty plea represents another success in the Department’s continuing effort to counter the national security threat posed by our nation’s adversaries, including Russia.”

“Our country entrusted Debbins with the responsibility and training to protect it from its adversaries,” said G. Zachary Terwilliger, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. “Debbins betrayed that trust and betrayed his fellow service members by conspiring to provide national defense information to Russian intelligence operatives. I would like to commend our investigative partners for their steadfast and dogged dedication to bringing Debbins to justice and holding him accountable for his crimes.”

From 1998 to 2005, Debbins served on active duty as an officer in the U.S. Army, serving in chemical units before being selected for the U.S. Army Special Forces. The Russian intelligence agents encouraged him to join and pursue a career in the Special Forces, which he did, where he served at the rank of Captain.

Over the course of the conspiracy, Debbins provided the Russian intelligence agents with information that he obtained as a member of the U.S. Army, including information about his chemical and Special Forces units. In 2008, after leaving active duty service, Debbins disclosed to the Russian intelligence agents classified information about his previous activities while deployed with the Special Forces. Debbins also provided the Russian intelligence agents with the names of, and information about, a number of his former Special Forces team members so that the agents could evaluate whether to approach the team members to see if they would cooperate with the Russian intelligence service.

“Debbins betrayed this nation and his fellow serviceman, putting Americans and our national security at risk by providing national defense information to Russia’s Intelligence Service,” said Steven M. D’Antuono, Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI Washington Field Office. “Despite being entrusted to protect his colleagues and U.S. national security, he chose to abuse this trust by knowingly providing classified information to one of our most aggressive adversaries.  Today’s plea is an example of the zealous pursuit of justice that the FBI and our partners stand for and work tirelessly to achieve every day.”

“President Kennedy called the Green Berets ‘a symbol of excellence, a badge of courage, a mark of distinction.’ Mr. Debbins’ actions were a symbol of betrayal, a badge of cowardice, and a mark of treachery,” said Alan E. Kohler, Jr., Assistant Director of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division. “He pledged his allegiance to Russia, and in doing so, sold-out his country and fellow Green Berets. This case should serve as a reminder that the FBI and its investigative partners will stop at nothing to hold an individual accountable for their actions.”

Debbins is scheduled to be sentenced on Feb. 26, 2021.  He faces a maximum penalty of life in prison. Actual sentences for federal crimes are typically less than the maximum penalties. A federal district court judge will determine any sentence after taking into account the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Thomas W. Traxler and James L. Trump, and Trial Attorney David Aaron of the National Security Division’s Counterintelligence and Export Control Section, are prosecuting the case.

U.S. Attorney Terwilliger and Assistant Attorney General Demers greatly appreciate the assistance of Army Counterintelligence, the FBI’s Minneapolis Field Office, the United Kingdom’s Metropolitan Police Service, and MI5.

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    The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and states ensure compliance with the Agricultural Worker Protection Standard (WPS) primarily through inspections of farms. The states collect some information—such as the number of inspections they conduct—and provide that information to EPA as part of cooperative agreements between EPA and the states. The extent of use of the designated representative provision of the WPS, and its effect on the availability of pesticide information, are not known because EPA does not collect information on the use of the provision and does not coordinate with states to do so. EPA's guidance to states for conducting inspections encourages, but does not require, state inspectors to ask farmers and farmworkers about whether a designated representative has been used. EPA officials said that the agency has not asked states to collect information on the provision because the agency has focused on compliance with other aspects of the WPS. By coordinating with states, through the cooperative agreements or some another mechanism, to collect information on the use of the designated representative provision, EPA would be better positioned to determine whether the provision is serving its intended purpose. Some stakeholders have raised concerns about potential misuse of pesticide information, such as other farmers using the information obtained by a designated representative to gain a competitive advantage. However, EPA officials, state officials, and stakeholders told us they did not know of any instance in which a person serving as a designated representative misused the pesticide information obtained from farmers. Neither EPA's guidance nor its website explain the agency's expectations for appropriate use or describe how such information could be misused. EPA officials said that the agency has not explained what constitutes misuse. By explaining, in the agency's guidance, on its website, or through another mechanism, EPA's expectations about appropriate use of pesticide information obtained by designated representatives, including the misuse of such information, the agency could ensure designated representatives understand the importance of the information in reducing the consequences of pesticide exposure. Farmworkers Picking Strawberries at a Farm The use of pesticides contributes to U.S. agricultural productivity by protecting crops against pests or weeds, but this use may pose risks to human health. To reduce the consequences of pesticide exposure to farmworkers' health, EPA revised the WPS in 2015 to include a provision that allows a farmworker to identify a person who can request, for their benefit, certain pesticide information from their employer—this is called the designated representative provision. This report examines (1) what is known about the extent of use and effect of the designated representative provision on the availability of pesticide information and (2) what is known about any misuse of information obtained through the provision. GAO reviewed laws, regulations, and guidance, and interviewed officials from EPA and 13 selected states about how they implement and oversee compliance with the standard. GAO also interviewed stakeholders, such as farmer groups and farmworker advocacy groups. GAO is making two recommendations to EPA to (1) coordinate with states to collect information on the use of the designated representative provision and (2) take steps to explain, in guidance, on its website, or through another mechanism, the agency's expectations about appropriate use of pesticide information obtained by a designated representative and describe potential misuse of such information. EPA agreed, in part, to both recommendations. For more information, contact Steve D. Morris at (202) 512-3841 or morriss@gao.gov.
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  • Veterans Affairs: VA Needs to Address Persistent IT Modernization and Cybersecurity Challenges
    In U.S GAO News
    The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has faced challenges in its efforts to accomplish three critical information technology (IT) modernization initiatives: the department's health information system, known as the Veterans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture (VistA); a system for the Family Caregiver Program, which is to support family caregivers of seriously injured post-9/11 veterans; and the Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS) that collects and stores information and is used for processing disability benefit claims. Specifically, GAO has reported on the challenges in the department's three previous unsuccessful attempts to modernize VistA over the past 20 years. However, VA has recently deployed a new scheduling system as part of its fourth effort to modernize VistA and the next deployment of the system, including additional capabilities, is planned in October 2020. VA had taken steps to address GAO's recommendations from its 2014 report to implement a replacement system for the Family Caregiver Program. However, in September 2019, GAO reported that VA had yet to implement a new IT system that fully supports the Family Caregiver Program and that it had not yet fully committed to a date by which it will certify that the new IT system fully supports the program. In September 2015, GAO reported that VA had made progress in developing and implementing VBMS, but also noted that additional actions could improve efforts to develop and use the system. For example, VBMS was not able to fully support disability and pension claims, as well as appeals processing. GAO made five recommendations aimed at improving VA's efforts to effectively complete the development and implementation of VBMS; however, as of September 2020, VA implemented only one recommendation. VA's progress in implementing key provisions of the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (commonly referred to as FITARA) has been uneven. Specifically, VA has made progress toward improving its licensing of software and achieving its goals for closing unneeded data centers. However, the department has made limited progress toward addressing requirements related to IT investment risk management and Chief Information Officer authority enhancement. Until the department implements the act's provisions, Congress' ability to effectively monitor VA's progress and hold it fully accountable for reducing duplication and achieving cost savings will be hindered. In addition, since fiscal year 2016, GAO has reported that VA faces challenges related to effectively implementing the federal approach to, and strategy for, securing information systems; effectively implementing information security controls and mitigating known security deficiencies; and establishing elements of its cybersecurity risk management program. GAO's work stressed the need for VA to address these challenges as well as manage IT supply chain risks. As VA continues to pursue modernization efforts, it is critical that the department take steps to adequately secure its systems. The use of IT is crucial to helping VA effectively serve the nation's veterans. The department annually spends billions of dollars on its information systems and assets—VA's budget for IT now exceeds $4 billion annually. However, over many years, VA has experienced challenges in managing its IT projects and programs, which could jeopardize its ability to effectively support key programs such as the Forever GI Bill. GAO has previously reported on these IT management challenges at VA. GAO was asked to testify on its prior IT work at VA. Specifically, this testimony summarizes results and recommendations from GAO's issued reports that examined VA's efforts in (1) modernizing VistA, a system for the Family Caregiver Program, and VBMS; (2) implementing FITARA; and (3) addressing cybersecurity issues. In developing this testimony, GAO reviewed its recently issued reports that addressed IT management issues at VA and GAO's biannual high-risk series. GAO also incorporated information on the department's actions in response to recommendations. GAO has made numerous recommendations in recent years aimed at improving VA's IT system modernization efforts, implementation of key FITARA provisions, and cybersecurity program. VA has generally agreed with the recommendations and has begun to address them. For more information, contact Carol C. Harris at (202) 512-4456 or harriscc@gao.gov.
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  • Veteran Federal Employment: OPM and Agencies Could Better Leverage Data to Help Improve Veteran Retention Rates
    In U.S GAO News
    From fiscal years 2014 through 2018, veterans left federal government jobs at a higher rate than non-veterans, according to GAO analysis of Office of Personnel Management (OPM) data. After controlling for key demographic and employment factors, GAO estimated that on average, 6.7 percent of veterans left the federal government compared to 5 percent of similar non-veterans. While veterans primarily left to retire, veterans resigned from federal service at 1.6 times the rate of similar non-veterans. GAO also estimated that 18.7 percent of veterans resigned within their first 5 years of federal service compared to 11.1 percent of similar non-veterans. Each of the 24 Chief Financial Officer Act agencies experienced higher rates of attrition among veteran employees than similar non-veteran employees. GAO identified six workplace factors associated with veterans' intentions to leave federal service. These factors—or drivers of retention—are based on an analysis of data from the OPM Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (OPM FEVS), a tool for collecting employees' perceptions of their federal work experiences. Key Workplace Factors Associated with Veterans Considering Leaving Federal Service More than half of both veterans and non-veterans reported being satisfied with five of the six factors. More than half of both veterans and non-veterans reported not being satisfied with opportunities for advancement at their agencies. Overall we found that veterans were slightly less satisfied with these factors than non-veterans, which could in part explain the higher attrition rates for veterans. Improvements in employee satisfaction in these areas may lead to higher retention rates. Performing analyses similar to those in this report could help agencies identify and strengthen strategies for improving veteran retention. However, challenges exist for agencies using OPM FEVS data on their own to identify drivers of retention among their workforces. OPM could help agencies with these analyses so they could use data to address veteran retention issues and other workforce challenges. Approximately 200,000 servicemembers transition from military service to civilian life each year, according to the Department of Defense. A 2009 executive order created a government-wide initiative to increase veteran federal employment. While veteran hiring has increased since 2009, OPM has raised concerns about retention and job satisfaction of newly hired veterans. GAO was asked to analyze veteran federal employment data. This report analyzes (1) recent trends in attrition for veterans and non-veterans, and (2) key factors that may affect a veteran employee's decision to leave federal employment. GAO conducted a statistical analysis comparing attrition for veterans and similar non-veterans for fiscal years 2014 through 2018 (the most current data available). GAO conducted a literature review to identify potential drivers of retention and used regression methods to analyze OPM FEVS data to identify key drivers for veterans and non-veterans. GAO also interviewed OPM officials and veteran service organizations. GAO recommends that OPM assist the 24 CFO Act agencies by using OPM FEVS data to analyze the key drivers of veterans' retention. OPM partially concurred with the recommendation because of concerns about its scope and, in response, we modified it. For more information, contact Yvonne D. Jones at (202) 512-2717 or jonesy@gao.gov.
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  • Oil and Gas: Onshore Competitive and Noncompetitive Lease Revenues
    In U.S GAO News
    Pursuant to federal law, the Department of the Interior's (Interior) Bureau of Land Management (BLM) offers leases competitively through auction or noncompetitively for a fee if an adequate bid is not received. Competitive leases for oil and gas development on federal lands produced greater revenues, on average, than noncompetitive leases for fiscal years 2003 through 2019, according to GAO's analysis of revenues reported by Interior's Office of Natural Resources Revenue (ONRR) and leases from BLM. For this period, about 72,800 competitive leases produced about $14.3 billion in revenues—while total of 100,300 leases produced $16.1 billion. Average revenues from competitive leases over this time period were nearly 3 times greater than revenues from noncompetitive leases; about $196,000 and $66,000, respectively. Based on GAO's analysis of leases that started in fiscal years 2003 through 2009, competitive leases produced oil and gas more often than noncompetitive leases during the leases' 10-year primary term. Further, competitive leases with high bonus bids (bids above $100 per acre) were more likely to produce oil and gas in their 10-year primary terms than both competitive leases with lower bonus bids and noncompetitive leases. Specifically, about 26 percent of competitive leases that sold with bonus bids above $100 per acre produced oil and gas and generated royalties in their primary term compared with about 2 percent for competitive leases that sold at the minimum bid of $2 per acre and about 1 percent for noncompetitive leases. GAO's analysis showed that competitive leases with high bonus bids generated over 3 times the amount of cumulative, or total, royalties by the end of their primary term than all other competitive and noncompetitive leases combined (see fig.). Cumulative Royalties from Competitive Leases, by Bonus Bid, and Noncompetitive Leases That Started in Fiscal Years 2003 through 2009 According to BLM, federal onshore oil and gas leases generate about $3 billion annually in federal revenues, including royalties, one-time bonus bid payments, and rents. The Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act of 1987 requires that public lands available for oil and gas leasing first be offered under a competitive bidding process. BLM offers leases with 10-year primary terms competitively through auction or, if the tract of land does not receive an adequate bid, noncompetitively for a fee. The minimum bid is $2 per acre, and bids at or above the minimum are called bonus bids. ONRR is to collect revenues from oil and gas leases in accordance with the specific terms and conditions outlined in the leases, including revenues from rents and royalties. Lessees are to pay rent annually until production begins on the leased land and then pay royalties as a percentage of oil and gas production. Lease terms may be extended beyond the primary term if, for example, the lease is producing oil or gas. GAO was asked to review oil and gas leasing on federal lands. This report describes oil and gas revenues from competitive and noncompetitive leases for fiscal years 2003 through 2019. GAO analyzed federal lease and revenue data and interviewed Interior officials and four experts knowledgeable about federal oil and gas leasing. To consistently compare leases over their lifecycle, GAO analyzed revenues that occurred within the leases' primary term (first 10 years) for leases that started in fiscal years 2003 through 2009. For more information, contact Frank Rusco at (202) 512-3841 or RuscoF@gao.gov.
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  • Economic Adjustment Assistance: Experts’ Proposed Reform Options to Better Serve Workers Experiencing Economic Disruption
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    What GAO Found U.S. workers have faced considerable changes in how they work and in the skills they need because of economic changes created by emerging technologies, disruptive business models, and other economic forces. Federal economic adjustment assistance (EAA) programs were established, in part, to help workers adjust to these economic disruptions. Consistent with GAO's prior work on EAA programs, experts in GAO's roundtable identified a range of challenges to using EAA programs to effectively respond to economic disruptions workers might experience. In light of these challenges, experts identified reform actions that could better serve workers (see table). The actions fell into six interrelated reform areas. Examples of Potential Reform Actions That Could Better Serve Workers Who Experience Economic Disruption, as Identified by Experts in GAO's Roundtable Reform area Examples of potential reform actions identified by experts Proactive efforts to address disruption Establish lifelong learning accounts for workers through contributions of individual workers, employers, and government agencies to fund continuous education and training opportunities. Establish a tax credit to help incentivize employers to retrain rather than lay off employees. Access to Economic Adjustment Assistance (EAA) programs Use the existing unemployment insurance system to better inform dislocated workers about the availability of and their eligibility for EAA programs. Worker training Expand the number of short-term, high-demand skills-based training opportunities. Prompt employers to develop apprenticeship programs. For example, require employers to operate apprenticeship programs of their own or pay a tax to fund the creation of apprenticeship programs. Income and other supports Create more opportunities for workers to co-enroll in training and financial safety-net programs. Develop supportive services programs for dislocated workers at the community colleges in which they are enrolled. EAA service delivery Provide dislocated workers ready access to easy-to-navigate data on high-demand skills, earnings in various occupations, and the number of available jobs in those occupations in their area. Provide community colleges with additional state or federal resources to deliver more career guidance to dislocated workers. Structure of the EAA system Invest in training infrastructure, such as publicly funded regional universities, community colleges, and other institutions. Reduce barriers to accessing existing national datasets to facilitate the evaluation of EAA program effectiveness. Source: GAO analysis of expert statements. | GAO-21-324 Note: These potential reform actions are not listed in any specific rank or order and their inclusion in this report should not be interpreted as GAO endorsing any of them. GAO did not assess how effective the potential reform actions may be or the extent to which program design modifications, legal changes, and federal financial support would be needed to implement any given reform action or combination of reform actions. Why GAO Did This Study Various economic disruptions, such as policy changes that affect global trade or the defense or energy industries and shifts in immigration, globalization, or automation, can lead to widespread job loss among workers within an entire region, industry, or occupation. GAO was asked about options for reforming the current policies and programs for helping workers weather economic disruption. This report describes a range of options, identified by experts, to reform the current policies and programs for helping workers weather economic disruption. With the assistance of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, GAO convened a 2-day, virtual roundtable in August 2020 with 12 experts, selected to represent a broad spectrum of views and expertise and a variety of professional and academic fields. They included academic researchers, program evaluators, labor economists, former federal agency officials, and state and local practitioners. GAO also reviewed relevant federal laws, prior GAO reports, and other research. For more information, contact Cindy S. Brown Barnes at (202) 512-7215 or brownbarnesc@gao.gov.
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