Harold Nicholson was born on November 17, 1950, in Woodburn, Oregon. He joined the U.S. Army where he rose to the rank of Captain and worked in the intelligence unit. On October 20, 1980 Nicholson began working for the CIA. He would have an impressive career in the CIA, travelling between different countries with different titles and different responsibilities. In general, he worked as an operations officer focused on conducting intelligence operations against foreign intelligence services. He was especially tasked to look into the intelligence services of the Soviet Union and later the Russian Federation. He worked in Manilla, Philippines from 1982-1985, in Bangkok, Thailand from 1985-1987 and in Tokyo, Japan from 1987-1989. In all of these assignments he would make contacts with previously targeted Soviet officials.
In 1994 Nicholson was brought back to the United States and served as an instructor in Camp Peary, Virginia at the classified CIA Special Training Center often known as “the Farm.” In this position he taught trainees the art of various aspects of tradecraft. Finally in 1996, he moved to CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia where he was designated as the Branch Chief for the Counterterrorism Center, Directorate of Operations. He held “Top Secret” and “Sensitive Compartmentalized Information” security clearances.
While his career was finding more and more success, his home life was in shambles. The time away from home and the constant travel wore away at his marriage. His wife Laurie divorced him, but he was eventually able to gain custody of the children and struggled to support them and pay alimony on his $73,000.00 a year salary.
Until this point, Nicholson was seen as a valuable asset for the agency and was not suspected of doing anything untoward. However, in October and December 1995, he was subjected to three lie detector tests, a routine security measure conducted every five years for someone in his position. He failed all three of the exams. Some of the questions for which he was flagged were:
- “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?”
- “Are you trying to hide any contact with a Foreign Intelligence Service since 1990?”
The polygraph examiner also had to warn Nicholson to stop taking deep breaths during control questions, a tactic often used to manipulate the test.
All of this prompted an FBI investigation of Nicholson and the $12,000.00 he received in 1994 could not be traced to any legitimate source of income. The FBI also placed him under surveillance and noted that he was seen meeting with Russian intelligence officers in New Delhi, Jakarta, Zurich, Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia. These meetings were unauthorized and thus aroused even greater suspicion. He was therefore recalled to CIA headquarters where he was given a management position in the counterterrorism division. The agency limited his access to Russian intelligence matters, especially matters related to Chechnya, a volatile area in which the Russian were keenly interested in.
The FBI also took note of his use of a post office box and intercepted some of his mail dispatched from them. He used an alias “Nevil R. Strachey” on post cards that he mailed to his Russian handlers. One of these postcards was littered with code words requesting a meeting with an SVRR contact in Switzerland in November 1996. It happened that Nicholson was scheduled to take an authorized trip to Europe where he was to meet with a number of European intelligence officers, but he also informed his superiors that he planned to make a personal trip for a vacation to Switzerland.
At this point, the FBI feared that he might be planning an escape and arrested him on November 16, 1996, as he looked to board a flight at Dulles Airport in Virginia. After searching him they found a ticket to Zurich, Switzerland, a computer disc containing classified CIA files and ten rolls of photographic film that depicted Top Secret documents. Further investigation found that he was believed to have sold the identities of U.S. intelligence officers stationed in Russia as well as the name of trainees that he had instructed at the CIA Training Academy in Virginia.
“There are CIA officers who cannot be posted overseas in hostile environments even today because Nicholson gave up these people’s identities,” said Michael Rochford, a former chief of the FBI’s counterespionage section.
Nicholson could read the writing on the wall and admitted passing classified information to the SVRR from June 1994 to November 1996. On June 5, 1997, he was convicted of espionage and sentenced to 23 years and seven months of incarceration. Because he cooperated fully, life imprisonment (and the death penalty) were taken off of the table. He stated that he committed espionage for the money (approximately $300,000.00), which he wanted to provide to his children.
Just one year later, Nicholson’s son, Nathaniel was arrested for collecting $47,000.00 from Russian officials in Peru, Cypress and Mexico. It is believed that the money was being paid in return for the espionage that Harold Nicholson had previously engaged in, a pension of sort. However, it was found that Nathan had acted as a courier for information between his father and the Russians, passing along details about his arrest and the investigation of him (presumably a quality control effort by the Russians to minimize future agents from being uncovered). Nathaniel had been observed meeting with SVRR representatives six times between 2006 and 2008 including twice at the Russian consulate in San Francisco. Harold was hauled back into court on January 18, 2011 and this time plead guilty to conspiring to act as an agent of a foreign government and conspiracy to commit money laundering. Five other charges were dropped because of his plea deal and his son was sentenced to five years of probation, having testified against his father.
Harold Nicholson was sent to the United States Penitentiary in Florence, Colorado, the so called SuperMax prison. He is believed to be the highest ranking CIA official to ever be convicted of espionage.