The handoff was quick and seamless, a coffee cup containing the DNA of a suspected Russian spy swapped for an identical one in a hallway exchange between a CIA operative and an FBI agent.
The move was textbook spycraft, but everything else about the scenario was extraordinary: The handoff went down within the bowels of CIA headquarters, and the suspected mole was one of the agency’s own – but so was the man tasked with catching him.
The target was Harold ‘Jim’ Nicholson, a charismatic career spy and devoted single dad who’d been working for the CIA for 16 years.
The CIA colleague who’d swiped the coffee cup from his desk was John Maguire, a former Baltimore cop who’d carved out a counterrorism niche within the spy agency.
Maguire had been recalled from overseas by CIA superiors – banished to HR as punishment, he’d thought, for rejecting a posting in Pakistan in autumn 1995 – before being called into a secret meeting at Langley, asked if he’d accept an unidentified job, then whisked to an off-site location.
There, in an FBI safe house in an unprecedented interagency spy-catching collaboration, he learned the details of the ask: Someone within the CIA was sneaking secrets to the Russians. Nicholson was the likely culprit. Maguire was to get Nicholson to hire him as his righthand man, spy on him from within his own department, then nail him with evidence so they could lock Nicholson up for treason.
By the summer of 1996, Maguire was working next to the suspected spy.
“There were times when I just wanted to stab him in the neck at his desk and just say, ‘F*** it, he’s dead. It’s over. Here,’” Maguire, now retired from the agency, tells The Independent.
He resisted the urge, however – and in just a matter of months, using an arsenal of tricks from old-school detective work to info-seeking liquid lunches, Maguire pulled it off. A spy had never been used to catch a spy at Langley before, and there’s been no public announcement of any such feat since.
After more than two decades behind bars, Nicholson will be released from prison on 26 November. He was sentenced in 1997 to 23 years and 7 months for conspiracy to commit espionage – one of the highest-ranking CIA officers ever convicted of the offence. But the turncoat spy wasn’t done; from prison, he duped his youngest child – a son in his mid-20s who worshipped his dad and long believed he’d been railroaded – into continuing his traitorous relationship with the Russians.
They were caught and both convicted, the younger Nicholson avoiding jail time with a plea deal while his father was slapped with eight more years. The disgraced CIA man was also transferred from his cushy Oregon facility to the hardcore Colorado prison colloquially known as Supermax – from which he’s scheduled to walk free after Thanksgiving.
“Jim Nicholson was what they call a double hitter: There was his first crime, which he got caught for, went to prison, and then from prison organized his second one,” author Bryan Denson, who interviewed Nathaniel Nicholson, Maguire and other players extensively for his 2015 book The Spy’s Son, tells The Independent.
Denson believes the release will be a “gut-check moment” for the spy, who turns 73 just days before he’s scheduled to walk free.
“Maybe Jim is a better person than he proved himself to be there for a bit, and maybe he will show fealty for his family and want to, you know, put his grandchildren on his knee and be that guy … but he’s going to be a pauper if he does it,” Denson tells The Independent, noting that Nicholson, like any convicted spy, will be legally barred from profiting off of his crimes.
Maguire, who has more firsthand experience of Nicholson and his personality, is convinced “he’s going to run.”
“He’s not going to stay here,” says Maguire, who remains incredulous that the US government never used Nicholson as a bargaining chip to get back Americans imprisoned in Russia like Brittany Griner and Paul Whelan. “He’ll be gone in a couple of weeks.”
Nicholson’s lawyer, contacted by The Independent, said neither he nor his client could comment before the release.
Very few turncoats have been released from prison in recent years — Robert Hanssen died behind bars earlier this year and Aldrich Ames remains serving a life sentence without parole. Ana Montes, who spied for Cuba and was released in January, moved to Puerto Rico, and Jonathan Pollard, who spied for Israel, moved there after his 2015 release.
After covering Nicholson for years and literally writing the book on him, Denson says the spy’s next steps remain “a big question to me.”
“Does he just get himself plucked by the Russians and go back to Moscow where the money’s waiting for him?” Denson says. “Or does he stay here and do right by his family?”
Because Nicholson, when it comes down to it, betrayed everyone and everything in his life that he purported to hold dear: His country, his colleagues, his career and, most importantly, his family and his children.
It’s all a far cry from the life Nicholson imagined as he idolized James Bond while growing up on Air Force bases with a former Army cryptographer mother, Betty, and Air Force serviceman stepfather, Marvin “Nick” Nicholson. Betty’s first husband and Jim’s biological father had walked away from the family, and Marvin married her when Jim was seven, formally adopting the child.
Inspired by his family’s military history and the spy stories he devoured, a young Nicholson enrolled in ROTC during college at Oregon State, where he met his future wife, Laurie, who would later give birth to the couple’s three children. Nicholson worked in military intelligence but left the Army in 1979 and held a civilian job briefly, before joining the CIA the following year.
He hauled his growing family to various posts abroad. From the Philippines to Romania to Thailand, his marriage grew ever more tumultuous with allegations of cheating on both sides; by 1992, Laurie, fed up with her husband’s selfish ambition and infidelity, had returned to the US and filed divorce papers. She later told Denson that “one of Jim’s greatest faults … was that he had somehow accustomed himself to champagne tastes on a Budweiser budget,” he writes in The Spy’s Son.
Two years later, Nicholson walked into the Russian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, where he was stationed, the CIA under the impression he was trying to recruit their intelligence chief. Instead, the veteran operative offered his own services to the SVR (the Russian foreign intelligence department that preceded the KGB) for payment – just weeks after infamous CIA turncoat Ames was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Nicholson, Denson writes in his book, “figured that with Ames out of the way, the SVR might be in the market for another highly paid mole inside the CIA.”
They were. So began a deeply damaging double-cross that would continue, in various guises, for more than a decade.
In the immediate, however, Nicholson pulled off some of his most damaging work. With primary custody of his children, he moved the family back to Virginia in 1994 and began working as an instructor at the CIA’s training facility, colloquially referred to as “The Farm.” There, he gathered intelligence on the upcoming recruits and sold it to the Russians, rendering the future US spies effectively useless going forward. He was also photographing and summarizing top-secret files and reports to pass along, everything from information about US policy to foreign cables to debriefings of Ames that could prove useful to the Russians.
By 1996, US intelligence had realised it had a problem and was frantically trying to root out the mole.
That’s when the higher-ups tapped Maguire, who was miserable at his temporary Langley desk assignment after years of exciting and efficacious field work. He’d been recalled from overseas as authorities zeroed in on Nicholson as the mole – unaware that higher-ups were readying him for a mammoth in-house espionage challenge, he says.
“There’s a reason that HR is only on the second floor,” he jokes “You can’t even jump out of the window high enough; you’ll land in the bushes, break your legs and then you’ll be in HR in a wheelchair.”
He’s the type of no-nonsense guy who cracks those jokes in between explaining how he took down one of the most damaging spies in history. He learned the details in the safe house after passing a polygraph from the “first-string, varsity officers … people that know their s***.”
Eventually, says Maguire, “The lead agent said, ‘We’ve got another Ames.’”
He was instructed to “get [Nicholson] to pick you to be his deputy” and use the position to surveil and snare him – and fast.
“You’ve got to catch that f****r in a year; we can’t afford to wait five years,’” Maguire says another high-ranking superior told him at a later meeting. “You’ve got to catch him doing something.”
Real-life espionage, he says, is “not some swashbuckling James Bond thing,” although he noted that Nicholson, who was enamoured with 007 as a child, himself was “a real womanizer,” known for being tall, dark, handsome, and “very smooth, very, very, crafty.”
The spywork itself was more mundane, “a methodical mind game of four-dimensional chess, and you have to plan and role play,” Maguire says.
“What I had to do for this was essentially an operational meeting for eight to nine hours a day and not make a mistake and not mess up,” says Maguire – all the time watching for clues that Nicholson might be readying to “do something operational.”
“I needed to make sure I didn’t miss anything,” he tells The Independent. “It was very stressful …an enormously straining mental exercise.”
Nicholson’s MO included targeting younger officers and collecting background information on them to share with the Russians, so that they would be vulnerable to being convinced to share information themselves later down the track on overseas missions.
“He was a clever guy and a mercenary son of a bitch, because he didn’t care what happened to those kids, those young officers … they’re working for a guy who’s set up a target package on them so they can be approached later in their careers,” he says. “I’ve never seen that before.”
Nicholson’s predecessor, Ames, executed “horrible” crimes, Maguire says – “but he didn’t headhunt in the building,”
“And we know Jim was headhunting in the building.”
So was Maguire, though – and his efforts paid off after a liquid lunch in Georgetown in October 1996, not long before Nicholson was scheduled to make an overseas trip.
“He had a six-pack of beer on the floor of the car, and I’m drinking beer in his car on the way back to the building; we’re driving around in rural Virginia, and I say, ‘Are you lost?’ And he goes, ‘No, no, no, and there’s a place out here, this is one of the days when they release unique runs of stamps.’”
Nicholson hopped out at a rural post office, bought stamps, got back in the car, and they returned to Langley, Maguire triggering a meeting with the FBI to tip them off that it seemed his boss was readying “to do something operational.”
“They just bet the farm on that night, and they had a tremendous amount of manpower deployed and prepared,” Maguire says. “And sure enough, he went out late at night, left his house, left his kids at home alone and went out … and they actually caught him in the act mailing something, and then that was the stamp that he bought – and he licked it, so there was DNA on it. And he threw it in the mailbox, and before the sun came up that thing was processed and in the evidence system, and then the real postcard went back in the mailbox and went on its way to the overseas address, and he established a direct link to the KGB.”
Nicholson was arrested on the eve of his 46th birthday and sentenced in June 1997 to 23 years and seven months in prison. His children’s lives had been uprooted unceremoniously, the family home in Virginia turned upside down before the oldest, Jeremi, who was in college in Oregon, flew his younger sister, Star, and brother, Nathaniel, back to the West Coast.
The youngest Nicholson was just 12 when his father was arrested, and the spy’s mother and stepfather refused to believe their feted, patriotic scion had done any wrong. Along with the children, they’d visit the imprisoned ex-CIA officer at the Oregon facility where he was sent, and it was there that Nathan recalled his father apologising – and explaining that he’d “just wanted to help you kids out,” Denson writes in The Spy’s Son.
“Nathan never let go of the memory of that painful heart-to-heart,” Denson writes. “Seeing his dad so sorrowful, head literally hung low, churned in his young mind. He convinced himself that the government must have pressured him to confess – even to his own kids – that he spied for Russia.”
Nathan followed his father’s footsteps into the Army, but an injury sidelined his military career and he returned to Oregon, where he enrolled in community college in 2005, visiting his father in prison every other Saturday. Nicholson had been cooking up ways to resume contact with the Russians, and it wasn’t long before he enlisted his son.
During one visit, he told Nathan “that his old friends in Moscow were holding an account open in his name, and that together they might be able to make some early withdrawals,” Denson writes. “Jim had lost his freedom in service to the Russian Federation, and now he felt it was Russia’s turn to help support his kids while he was away. He wanted to know if Nathan was willing to serve in his stead on the outside.”
His youngest agreed “on the spot” – soon establishing contact with the Russians by walking into the consulate in San Francisco, before travelling to meetings in far-away locales from Mexico to Cyprus, passing messages and accepting money between 2006 and 2008 before he was caught. The younger Nicholson, at 26 years old, narrowly avoided jail in a plea deal that helped him build the prosecution’s case against his father, who received an additional eight years.
“I think his heart was really, for a time, broken when he realized, finally, what his dad had done,” Denson, a fellow Oregonian who now considers Nathan a friend after extensively interviewing him for the 2015 book. “His dad made it sound like it was no big deal – and this is, of course, coming from Nathan himself. [His dad] made it sound like he was just doing him a little favour, but he had to be secretive.
“I think, in his heart, Nathan probably knew that it was wrong, but … he’s a guy who is a pleaser,” Denson says. “He loves his close circle of friends and family and shows it … Nathan Nicholson is a fundamentally decent man.”
Denson and Maguire, both fathers, could not believe the spy had coopted his son into crime.
“That was the most mercenary thing,” Maguire says, adding: “He used his son and destroyed the basis of trust that a kid has with their father.”
That ruthless streak and demonstrated fairweather loyalty only supports Maguire’s theory that Nicholson will high-tail it out of America as quick as his treasonous feet can carry him.
“He’ll behave himself for a couple of weeks, he’ll get a plan together and figure out what he wanted to do,” says Maguire, adding that every officer has a “long-term contact break plan” that investigators never uncovered among Nicholson’s things.
“He is a traitor …he made his bed. He is a spy. He doesn’t believe in the country. He hates the system, and he signed up with an enemy nation,” he says. “And if that’s where he wants to have his allegiance, then ship him there and get a good innocent man back.”