How an Unmasked CIA Agent Used His Son as a Spy

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The story about a CIA agent and his son

Somewhat suspiciously, Jim Nicholson drove to Dulles International Airport on November 16, 1996, to fly to New York, then South America and Europe for work. At the entrance to the airport building, he was waved goodbye by his three children.

They would never see their father again as a free man afterward. Before he could board his plane, he was arrested by a man who showed his FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) badge. “The game is over,” the federal agent told him, as if on a police show.

Born in 1950, Harold James “Jim” Nicholson was the most senior CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) agent ever arrested for espionage in the United States. His arrest was the culmination of a months-long counterintelligence investigation meticulously conducted by the FBI in conjunction with the CIA.

Nicholson had been tracked on his travels to Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore, tested with the lie detector, and a male and female FBI agent had pretended to be a couple and moved in next door to monitor his home. Most rigorously, a secret department was set up at CIA headquarters in Langley in 1996, over which Jim was put in charge.

While he was engaged in anti-terrorism here, he was under constant surveillance. His right-hand man was a mole of the investigation team.

Before the authorities caught up to him, Nicholson had been a rising star in the intelligence community for years. After serving as an intelligence officer with the rank of captain in the United States Army, he was enlisted by the CIA in 1980. It was the last decade of the Cold War, and in several countries, Nicholson was engaged in various espionage and paramilitary activities. In Cambodia, for example, he trained the Cambodian resistance against the communist Vietnamese occupier.

When the Soviet Union disintegrated, he worked as a CIA chief in the Romanian capital Bucharest. The KGB activities, the secret service of the Soviet Union, were taken over by the SVR, the ‘Russian foreign security service.’ He made secret contacts while stationed as deputy chief of the CIA in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, from 1992 to 1994. In exchange for money to pay for his expensive lifestyle, he provided intelligence on the CIA’s activities and members.


While working as an instructor at the “Farm,” the CIA’s training center in Virginia, from 1994 to 1996, Jim continued to serve as an informant for the Russians. He did not even shy away from passing on his pupils’ details, thereby undermining their future as intelligence agents.

A Russian double agent eventually led the Americans to the trail of Nicholson’s betrayal, which had yet to be proven. Unauthorized visits to Russian embassies, mysterious sources of money, and intercepted mail convinced the counterintelligence people they had caught him red-handed. When the CIA spy was arrested at Dulles Airport, he was carrying classified information that he had wanted to transfer to his Russian backers in Europe.

In the footsteps

Anyone who thinks that this ended Jim Nicholson’s espionage activities is wrong. In Sheridan’s federal prison in Oregon, the ex-CIA man persuaded his youngest son Nathan to contact the Russians abroad. Through him, he again transmitted information in exchange for money.

The naive young man, who had seen his dream career in the army fall into the water after a parachute accident, found it all very exciting. He had always looked up to his father and was proud that he was now following in his footsteps. He shared the money he received from the Russians with his older brother and sister, who knew nothing about his espionage work, just as he and his brother and sister had not known about their father’s treason at the time. But Nathan also ended up in the basket and was arrested in 2008.

His father was charged a second time with espionage, and he himself did not escape prosecution. It was only in court that it dawned on him what game his father had played with him.

Journalist Bryan Denson spent five years talking to various stakeholders, including CIA people and Nathan Nicholson. He conducted extensive research into all available sources of father and son betrayal and how they were exposed. His book The Traitor and His Son is a detailed account of what he managed to uncover.

It also provides an informative picture of US intelligence work during the Cold War and after the 9/11 attacks, when US law was broadened to such an extent that the intelligence services were hardly obstructed in their counterintelligence work.

Sometimes, the author recounts facts, such as when he describes how Nathan ate curry chicken in the Indian restaurant Nirvana one night before his sentence was handed down and that he wore “a black suit, a neatly ironed blue shirt and a tie” in court. However, this well-written book is highly recommended for fans of spy thrillers.

Sometimes the truth turns out to be even more incredible than fiction.

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