- - Monday, May 18, 2015


By Bryan Denson

Grove Atlantic, $26, 365 pages

By Joseph C. Goulden

Of the American intelligence and military officers who spied for the Soviet Union and successor Russia, who deserves the most scorn for odious conduct? Topping any list would be Aldrich Ames of the CIA, whose treachery cost the lives of sources working for the United States, followed closely by Robert Hanssen of the FBI, who gave the KGB the bureau’s “game plan” for tracking spies.

After reading Bryan Denson’s superbly entertaining and informative book, my own choice is James Nicholson, a CIA officer who not only spied for the Russians, but dragged his young son into the messy vortex of treachery — and prison.

Nicholson began his career as a case officer who did exemplary work in the Far East. He then served as an instructor at the agency’s training center in Virginia (“the Farm”) and as a deputy branch chief in the counterintelligence center.

Concurrently, however, Nicholson had another master: Russia’s Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki, or SVR, successor to the KGB. Beset by financial troubles stemming from a divorce (and carefree spending) Nicholson entered the Russian embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in 1994, and volunteered his services.

After establishing his bona fides as a CIA officer, Nicholson was blunt. “I need twenty-five thousand dollars,” he said. “That should not be a problem,” the SVR officer replied. Nicholson received the $25,000 at a subsequent meeting, with the promise that $75,000 more was being held for him.

Nicholson’s assignment to the Farm was of inestimable value to the Russians. He gave the SVR the true identities of hundreds of career trainees, or CTs, “many of whom would be sent overseas on their first tours — some to spy for Russia.”

Nicholson’s betrayal doomed these young people’s careers from the outset. One shudders at the consequences: Brave women and men enter on hazardous duty for their country, only to have their lives blighted by Nicholson. To be sure, they could continue to work for CIA, but not in the covert positions for which they were trained. And although the CIA does not supply statistics, appearances are that case officers progress faster than those in analytical positions.

But Nicholson’s days as a spy were numbered. In the wake of the Ames scandal, President Clinton ordered the FBI to work with the CIA to search out other bad apples. The forced partnership worked. A Russian source meanwhile gave information that cast suspicion on Nicholson.

And here Mr. Denson goes into a recitation of counterintelligence trade craft that will please any buff. (He obviously benefited from “official” cooperation.) CIA officer Paul Redmond and FBI agent Ed Curran teamed to put Nicholson under a tight surveillance — electronic and physical — that ended with his arrest at Washington Dulles International Airport as he was about to board a plane for Europe. He was carrying 74 classified documents, including some “top secret,” and access information for a Swiss bank account.

In plea-bargaining with prosecutors, Nicholson admitted taking $300,000 from SVR (his agency salary netted him $2,900 monthly). His sentence: 23 years and seven months. The agreement called for imprisonment in Oregon, so he could be near his three children.

Nicholson used this well-meaning gesture, however, to bring ruin to his youngest son, Nathan, who was just 12 years old when his father went to prison. Not unlike other case officers, Nicholson’s work schedule and travel meant that he gave his children scant attention when they were growing up. Perhaps seeking family redemption, Nathan entered the Army hoping to be a ranger. A spinal injury in a parachute jump dashed this ambition. Perpetually broke, deeply depressed, he fell victim to his father’s entreaties to continue spy work for the Russians.

During prison visits, Nicholson gave his son crudely coded messages on how to renew contact with SVR handlers, and thoughts on how such spies as Ames were detected. Nathan met SVR contacts in Cyprus and Mexico City, each time receiving stacks of $100 bills. Somehow Nicholson convinced the lad he was doing nothing illegal.

Counterintelligence prevailed once again, and soon a sobbing Nathan was asking, “What have I done? I love my country!” As Mr. Denson writes, he “failed to grasp that his principle betrayer was his own dad.” An understanding judge gave him probation.

Nicholson received a further eight years. In court, he thanked the Russians for trying to “help my children,” and concluded with a stunning statement, “I regret the embarrassment that this has caused them [the Russians] as well.”

Mr. Denson used interviews with Nathan, and voluminous letters between father and son, to write a novelistic account of an American tragedy — and what is easily the intelligence book of the year.

Washington writer Joseph Goulden is the author of 18 nonfiction books.

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