Harold James Nicholson
|Harold James Nicholson|
Undated photograph of Mr. Nicholson, released by the CIA.
|Occupation||Central Intelligence Agency officer|
|Criminal penalty||23 ½ years|
Harold James Nicholson (born 1950) is a former Central Intelligence Agency officer and a twice-convicted spy for Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR). His recruitment to the SVR appears to have occurred in the wake of a much publicized arrest of senior CIA officer and Moscow mole Aldrich Ames in February 1994, which, in the words of CIA veteran and author Tennent Bagley, had "exposed extraordinary slackness of CIA security procedures."
Nicholson joined the CIA in October 1980, after having served as captain in a US Army intelligence unit.
In his career with the CIA, Nicholson was assigned duties throughout the world; he worked for the CIA as an operations officer specializing in intelligence operations against foreign intelligence services, including the intelligence services of the USSR and later, the Russian Federation. From 1982 till 1985, he worked for the CIA in Manila, where he had direct contacts with targeted Soviet officials; from 1985 till 1987 he worked for the CIA in Bangkok, from 1987 till 1989 in Tokyo. From 1990 till 1992, he was the CIA Chief of Station in Bucharest, Romania.
From 1994 until July, 1996, Nicholson worked as an instructor at the classified CIA's Special Training Center at Camp Peary, Virginia (also known as "The Farm"), teaching CIA trainees intelligence tradecraft. In July, 1996, he was assigned as a Branch Chief in the Counterterrorism Center, Directorate of Operations, at CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia. That position carried a pay grade GS-15, his salary being approximately $73,000.
Despite Nicholson's career success, his personal life had suffered, as his constant assignments weighed heavily on his wife and three children, eventually leading to a divorce.
Espionage against the United States, FBI investigation and convictions
The FBI affidavit suggests that, while in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia during 1992-1994, as Deputy Chief of Station/Operations Officer, Nicholson might have been recruited by the Russian intelligence service (SVR) while meeting with an officer of the Russian intelligence service in Kuala Lumpur on four occasions during his final months there; three of those meetings took place in the Russian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur. Those meetings were authorized by the CIA and reported by Nicholson. On June 30, 1994, one day after his last reported meeting with the SVR officer, financial records showed that $12,000 was wired into Nicholson's savings account at Selco Credit Union, Eugene, Oregon; the FBI was unable to trace this money to any legitimate source of income.
Nicholson later admitted to providing the Russian intelligence service with national defense information, including photographic negatives, between June 1994 and his arrest on November 16, 1996.
The FBI affidavit implies that the investigation of Nicholson's espionage for Russia was triggered by the fact that he had failed to pass 3 polygraph examinations administered by CIA polygraphers as part of his routine security update in October and December 1995, specifically failing such questions as "Are you hiding involvement with a Foreign Intelligence Service?", "Have you had unauthorized contact with a Foreign Intelligence Service?", "Since 1990, have you had contact with a Foreign Intelligence Service that you are trying to hide from the CIA?" and "Are you trying to hide any contact with a Foreign Intelligence Service since 1990?"; the CIA examiner noted that Nicholson appeared to be trying to manipulate the test by taking deep breaths on the control questions, which stopped after a verbal warning.
Another piece of information that linked Nicholson to his activities was that a Russian mole inside the FSB had informed the CIA that a top priority for Russian intelligence was to gather information on activities and movements of Chechen rebels. While an instructor at Langley, Nicholson had gone to CIA Headquarters and asked several CIA employees in the European section about information on Chechnya. Nicholson claimed the need to know was for an upcoming exercise with students. According to Langley leadership, there were no lessons on Chechen separatism. Requests for changes to the training program needed to be brought before a board of review, and Nicholson did not submit any proposed changes.
Nicholson was then placed under surveillance by the FBI. Nicholson was watched during his travels to Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, where he was seen in unauthorized meetings with Russian intelligence officers. The CIA assigned Nicholson to a management position in the counterterrorism branch at CIA Headquarters, while keeping a close eye on him. The CIA limited his access to information on Russian matters and Chechnya, in particular, which were the primary subjects of interest to his Russian handlers.
The FBI also retrieved mail sent from Nicholson to his handlers from local public post boxes, where he signed postcards under the alias "Nevil R. Strachey." One such postcard had code words requesting a meeting with the SVR in Switzerland in November 1996. That same month he was scheduled to travel to Europe on official CIA business to meet with European intelligence officers. Nicholson told the CIA he planned to take a personal vacation to Zurich afterwards. On November 16, 1996, the FBI arrested Nicholson at Dulles International Airport outside Washington; he had a ticket to Zurich and a bundle of exposed film and a computer disk bearing classified information from CIA files.
Harold Nicholson was convicted of selling U.S. intelligence to Russia for $300,000 and was sentenced to 23 years 7 months of imprisonment on June 5, 1997. He did not get a life without parole or death sentence as prosecutors said he had cooperated fully with them after his arrest. Prosecutors believed that he had sold the identities of all the U.S. intelligence officers stationed in Russia, as well as the identities of his trainees at the CIA school. He told the court that he had intended for the money he received from the Russians to benefit his children.
Although his case received far less publicity than that of Aldrich Ames, and apparently caused less damage to U.S. national security, Nicholson was said to be the highest ranking CIA official ever convicted of spying for a foreign power. In court, Nicholson stated he actually was inspired to commit espionage by looking at the case of Aldrich Ames, rather than being deterred by it.
At the end of 2008, his youngest son Nathaniel Nicholson was arrested; prosecutors said Harold Nicholson had used his son to collect more than $47,000 from Russian officials in Mexico, Peru and Cyprus for past spy work: between December 2006 and December 2008 Nathaniel had met with representatives of the Russian Federation six times, including twice at a consulate in San Francisco. Harold Nicholson was pulled out of prison to plead in court on charges of conspiracy along with his son.
On January 18, 2011, Harold Nicholson was sentenced to eight more years in prison, having pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government and conspiracy to commit money laundering; five other charges had been dropped as part of the plea deal. Nathaniel Nicholson had been sentenced in December 2010 to five years on probation after making a deal with prosecutors to help build the case against his father.
- Tennent H. Bagley. Shedding Light on Cold War Mysteries. Wall Street Journal Europe, March 7, 1994.
- AFFIDAVIT IN SUPPORT OF COMPLAINT, ARREST WARRANT AND SEARCH WARRANTS UNITED STATES v. HAROLD J. NICHOLSON
- "Twice convicted ex-CIA spy gets 8 more years". Fox News (Associated Press). 2011-01-19. Retrieved 2013-08-25.
- Weiner, Tim (6 June 1997). "C.I.A. Traitor, Saying He Wanted Cash for Family, Gets 23 Years". The New York Times. Retrieved 25 January 2011.
- Weiner, Tim (4 June 1997). "C.I.A. Traitor Severely Hurt U.S. Security, Judge Is Told". The New York Times. Retrieved 25 January 2011.
- FBI affidavit (2008)
- "Ex-CIA Spy Renewed Russian Contact via Son". Associated Press in USA Today. January 29, 2009. Retrieved 2011-01-22.
An imprisoned ex-CIA spy and his son have been charged with renewing contact with the father's former Russian handlers to get more money -- and perhaps a pension -- for his espionage.
- "PRESS RELEASE" (Archive). FBI. November 18, 1996. - Press release announcing arrest
- "UPDATE - SPY CATCHING" at the Wayback Machine (archived March 11, 2005) (Archive). PBS Newshour. November 19, 1996.