The Spy’s Son

Bryan Denson

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Portland, Oregon, January 29, 2009

I’m sitting in Satan’s Pew, the name I’ve conferred upon the torturously narrow courtroom benches in the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse. As I squirm in my seat, reporter’s notebook dandling on my lap, I notice a curiously high number of deputy U.S. marshals in the gallery, mostly buff guys with steely gazes and Glocks under their sports coats. Behind me, wearing blazers and striped clip-on ties, stands a knot of court security officers. Next to them, FBI agents squeeze together on a bench against the back wall. I haven’t witnessed court security this tight since the feds rolled up Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber, and hauled him before a judge in Helena, Montana. A courthouse contact has already tipped me that today I’ll witness something groundbreaking here in the cheap seats of American justice.

Keys jangle behind a paneled wall to my right, where I can hear the clank of a metal door. Deputy marshals are queuing today’s prisoners, who will appear one by one to face their charges before a magistrate judge. The weekday parade of pathos, known to courthouse denizens as Mag Court, normally features a tedious cast of freshly arrested miscreants,
some scratching from withdrawal. Now and again the show comes alive with stone killers, cops gone bad, diamond thieves, outlaw bikers, cockfighting impresarios, ecoterrorists, grave robbers, or the cornercutting captains of industry.

On this foggy Thursday afternoon, I’ve come to write about two suspects—an international spy, and the son who joined him in the family business of espionage.

My editors at The Oregonian, the daily newspaper several blocks away, are holding space on the front page for my father-son spy story. But the duo—whose names I’d never heard until this morning—will be arraigned separately, consigning me to a hellish deadline. I look at my watch and silently curse the docket gods. A hapless bunch of schnooks are scheduled ahead of my spy suspects, and the judge will take her good old time reading them their rights.

First up today is an accused scam artist from California who sold central home vacuum cleaning units across North America; apparently he was brilliant at sales and collecting money, but not at delivering the goods. Now comes another genius, a career bank robber arrested yesterday just twenty-one minutes after knocking off a Bank of America for a lousy $700; he’s already calculating how much time he’ll serve in prison. Up next is a guy who drank himself stupid out on the Umatilla Indian Reservation and threw some playful karate kicks at a buddy, who hurled him to the ground, whereupon Junior Jackie Chan blew a gasket, picked up two knives, and stabbed his pal nearly to death. Then come two men accused of illegally harboring a luckless El Salvadoran woman; she turned up, like so many, on the wrong side of the U.S. border.

Today’s guest of honor is Harold James “Jim” Nicholson, who in 1997 became the highest-ranking Central Intelligence Agency officer ever convicted of espionage. Nicholson, serving time at the federal prison fifty miles from where I sit, sold the identities of hundreds of CIA trainees to Russian spies. Now he’s accused of betraying his country again—this time
from behind bars. The Rolex-wearing spy nicknamed Batman, having recruited countless foreign assets to betray their own countries for the CIA, is suspected of sending the Russians his youngest son, twenty-four-year-old Nathaniel James Nicholson, as his emissary. Nathan, a partially disabled Army veteran, took basic lessons in spycraft from the old man,
then smuggled his dad’s secret messages out of the prison visiting room to Russian spies on three continents. For the trophy-conscious FBI, securing another conviction against Jim Nicholson would be a major prize.

A heavy door swings open, and here he is.

Jim wears a khaki prison uniform and a faded T-shirt the color of broiled salmon. His pale blue eyes sweep the room with an expression that shifts abruptly, as if he’d expected something grander than this feckless rabble of court staffers, lawyers, and a few scribbling journalists. Jim moves for the defense table with the short-step shuffle of a man who knows the sting of a jaunty stride in ankle chains. He eases into a highback chair. Jim sports a soul patch and mustache, gray hair sweeping over the tops of his ears. I take a mental note. This guy would look right at home playing tenor sax in a jazz quartet.

I’ve gazed at hundreds and hundreds of suspected felons in courtrooms across the country, but Jim Nicholson carries himself differently. He’s not eye-fucking the prosecutors or sneaking glances into the gallery for a friendly face. There’s no swagger, no tapping foot, no nervous smile that might offer some kind of tell. The man doesn’t even appear to be breathing. He wears an expression of captive resignation, like a golfer on a tee box watching the foursome in front of him swat cattails in search of a lost ball.

Then I see something. The chin. It tilts upward ever so slightly and guides his gaze, regally, a few inches above the eyes of everyone else on the floor of the courtroom. It’s a look that tells me everything I need to understand: This guy just knows he’s the smartest man in the building.

At this moment, I have no clue that I will spend the next five years contemplating the life and crimes of Jim Nicholson, piecing together his tangled human narrative, the wreckage he left of his family and the CIA, and his unique role in the ongoing hostilities between Washington and Moscow. And I cannot possibly know that I will learn this story with the help of Nathan, his family and friends, prison inmates, former spies and counterintelligence agents, national security lawyers, public policy makers, hundreds of pages of investigative files, wiretaps, court records, prison and military papers, Jim’s correspondence, excerpts from his personal journal, and a colorful band of investigators with the FBI and CIA who twice brought him to justice.

Already my questions are many: How on earth could a man devote decades of distinguished service to his country only to betray her? Why would he reach out to Russia again? Why would Moscow still care about its former mole nearly two decades after the Cold War? What could Russian spies hope to gain by making contact with Jim a dozen years after his treachery was unmasked? And why would he send his youngest son into the breach, risking his freedom? What kind of a dad does that?

When I hustle out of the courtroom to make my early evening deadline, I run into David Ian Miller, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Portland Field Office. Dave, who has always been a straight shooter, tells me that Jim Nicholson was a skilled and worthy adversary.

“At the end of the day,” he says, “this will prove to be a story of family, trust, and betrayal.”

And, as it happens, so much more.

The Spy’s Son Bryan Denson