The CIA officer who recruited his son to spy for Russia
‘Jim’ Nicholson was appointed as head of a counter-terrorism unit while secretly under investigation for espionage
In one of the most bizarre twists in America’s war on terrorism, the CIA assigned veteran operations officer Harold James “Jim” Nicholson to run a counter-terrorism branch in the heart of its Virginia headquarters. This was in 1996, more than five years before the attacks of September 11, 2001, as the Central Intelligence Agency worked around the clock to draw beads on disparate cells of Middle East terrorists - groups that would later coalesce into al-Qaeda.
By all appearances, Nicholson’s installment as chief of the Other World Terrorism branch was a clever move to pit one of the agency’s rising stars, a so-called “blue flamer”, in a tilt against terrorists. But the CIA’s installment of Nicholson as chief of the highly specialised counter-terrorism unit came under the most extraordinary of circumstances: He was secretly under investigation for espionage.
The FBI and CIA had begun to suspect Nicholson of spying for Russia in the mid-1990s. So those in charge of the joint spy catching operation engineered a plan to get him reassigned from The Farm (the agency’s covert training center, where he taught tradecraft to young spies) to his new position at CIA headquarters so they could keep an eye on him. The FBI secretly installed a tiny surveillance camera above Nicholson’s desk, bugged his home, searched his office and minivan, and tailed him night and day.
Their target and his subordinates performed authentic work to identify and defeat foreign terrorist cells. But Nicholson’s hand-picked deputy - CIA officer John Maguire, a veteran counterterrorism operative - secretly served as the eyes and ears of the covert spy catching venture. Maguire reported his boss’s every move to FBI investigators to help them take down the agency’s latest Judas.
In my new book (The Spy’s Son: The True Story of the Highest-Ranking CIA Officer Ever Convicted of Espionage and the Son he Trained to Spy for Russia), I point out in Maguire’s own words the outrageous irony of the CIA’s predicament: “We’re on the front end of the (counter-jihadist) spear, and we have a spy that’s the boss.”
But that was only one obstacle in the way of US efforts to counter the emergence of Osama bin Laden and his murderous minions. CIA Director John M Deutch was busily dismantling his agency’s efforts to identify the Sunni extremists who would later develop into bin Laden’s disciples. Deutch oversaw the agency as it instituted a prohibition against what are known as “dirty assets” - foreigners suspected of human rights violations. Deutch and the Clinton administration had no stomach for keeping such villains on the payroll - even if they were effective at preventing the spread of terrorism.
“They were bad people,” Maguire pointed out in one of our interviews. “They were murderers. Terrorists... There are not a lot of Franciscan monks that work in this organisational structure. If you’re gonna find out about radical Sunni Salafists in Lebanon, you can’t go to the Christian community and get that information.”
On Deutch’s watch, the agency adopted a clean-hands policy and instituted what has been called the “asset validation scrub” of 1995 and 1996. This forced Maguire - and Nicholson - to jettison 80 per cent of the brave-but-flawed souls working as US assets to disrupt terrorist organisations before they could draw blood.
“That sowed the seeds for 9/11,” Maguire told me. “We scrubbed our best cases.”
Maguire’s secret work to catch Nicholson is the only spy-vs-spy operation ever run under the roof of the CIA’s sprawling headquarters compound in Langley, a Virginia suburb across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. Maguire’s efforts, in support of the FBI’s sneaky surveillance operations, turned up enough evidence to arrest Nicholson, who had given the Russians the names of about 300 newly trained spies - some of whom he had trained at the Farm. This was a colossal breach that put lives of his brother and sister officers at risk.
The FBI takedown came on a cool Saturday morning in November 1996 on the tarmac at Dulles International Airport. Nicholson was preparing to fly overseas on official CIA business with some of his subordinates. His plan was to peel away from his colleagues at the conclusion of their work and take a mini-vacation that would allow him to rendezvous with his Russian handler in Switzerland. He was carrying a satchel of top secret files, his luggage held a pair of money belts to smuggle home his latest haul, and his Swiss banker’s business card was tucked in his wallet.
A federal judge in 1997 sentenced Nicholson to more than 23 years in prison. In advance of that punishment, the father of three told a court officer that he hoped to be given the “opportunity to offer some positive example to my children before I die.”
Nine years later, inside a prison visiting room in Sheridan, Oregon, Jim recruited his youngest son, Nathan Nicholson, to help him carry on the family business of espionage. Nathan was vulnerable to his dad’s pitch. He was freshly discharged from the army, having suffered a career ending parachuting accident, and was deeply depressed. He was willing to do nearly anything to make the old man proud.
So it came to pass in the autumn of 2006, a dozen years after Jim volunteered to spy for Russia, that he sent them his 24-year-old son as his agent.
The imprisoned spy, encouraging Nathan with Old Testament passages from the Bible and coded exhortations over the phone, told his boy that their collaboration was risky but not illegal. So Nathan, naïve and eager to please the father he idolised, spent the next two years smuggling his father’s messages out of the prison to a Russian spy on three continents. He would carry home sacks of money from San Francisco; Mexico City; Lima, Peru; and Nicosia, Cyprus.
Nathan was slow to comprehend how deeply he had trespassed into the clandestine world of his father’s past. Airport security officers kept stopping him, putting him through secondary searches, grilling him about his travels. The stress gave him ulcers and panic attacks. But he pressed on, not wanting to disappoint his dad.
Eventually he came to fear - rightfully, as it happens - that the FBI might be onto him. But by then, it was too late to turn back.
He had become his father’s last asset.
Bryan Denson is a veteran American journalist, a winner of the George Polk Award and finalist for The Pulitzer Prize. He is a staff writer for The Oregonian newspaper and OregonLive. The Spy’s Son is his first book.