Spy­ing for Rus­sia: It’s all in the fam­ily

Book re­view by Mary Louise Kelly

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - bookworld@wash­post.com Mary Louise Kelly, a for­mer in­tel­li­gence cor­re­spon­dent for NPR, is the au­thor, most re­cently, of the spy novel “The Bul­let.”

As a writer of spy thrillers, I’ve pitched my agent some strange ideas over the years. To her credit, she has en­thu­si­as­ti­cally em­braced plot twists, from a cat that prowls the cor­ri­dors of the CIA to a ter­ror cell that buries nu­clear bombs in crates of Pak­istani ba­nanas. But were I to pitch her a plot along the lines of the one that un­folds in “The Spy’s Son,” she would roll her eyes. “It’ll never sell,” I can hear her scold­ing. “Too far-fetched.”

“The Spy’s Son” tells the true story of Jim Ni­chol­son, the high­est-rank­ing CIA of­fi­cer ever con­victed of es­pi­onage. He then be­came the only Amer­i­can ever found guilty of spy­ing for a for­eign gov­ern­ment from be­hind the bars of a fed­eral pri­son. And here’s the kicker: Ni­chol­son turned his treach­ery into a fam­ily busi­ness. Af­ter be­ing locked up, he drafted his son to con­tinue sell­ing se­crets to Rus­sia.

Bryan Den­son, a re­porter for the Ore­go­nian, tack­les the story with zest. He be­gins his ac­count in 2009, in the Port­land court­room where he first glimpsed the man who had be­trayed the iden­ti­ties of hun­dreds of CIA re­cruits to Rus­sian spies. Ni­chol­son cut an un­der­whelm­ing fig­ure: shuf­fling, gray­haired, wear­ing a khaki pri­son uni­form and a faded T-shirt the color of broiled salmon. “I take a men­tal note,” Den­son writes. “This guy would look right at home play­ing tenor sax in a jazz quar­tet.”

But Ni­chol­son was no mild-man­nered mu­si­cian. His crimes had be­gun 15 years ear­lier,

when he was serv­ing in the CIA’s sta­tion in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He was also fi­nal­iz­ing a di­vorce, hurt­ing for money and play­ing sin­gle dad to his three kids. The so­lu­tion to his prob­lems ma­te­ri­al­ized in the form of a se­nior Rus­sian coun­ter­part, to whom Ni­chol­son vol­un­teered to be­tray his coun­try for cash. By Den­son’s ac­count, Ni­chol­son didn’t strug­gle with the de­ci­sion. He fig­ured the CIA had al­ready turned him into a crim­i­nal: He had fol­lowed or­ders to break into houses and plant bugs. Be­sides, by the mid-’90s, Moscow and Wash­ing­ton were co­op­er­at­ing on in­tel­li­gence mat­ters; Ni­chol­son “didn’t see Rus­sia as the ‘ bo­gey­man’ of yes­ter­year.”

Nor, ap­par­ently, did he see the need to take even ba­sic pre­cau­tions as he went about his work as a dou­ble agent. At a time when he must have known he’d fallen un­der sus­pi­cion — he was sub­jected to three con­sec­u­tive poly­graphs in the fall of 1995 — he con­tin­ued jet­ting off to meet his Rus­sian han­dlers. In Sin­ga­pore, he was spot­ted blithely hop­ping into a car bear­ing Rus­sian diplo­matic plates. On an­other trip, he stopped in Zurich and opened an ac­count to stash his clan­des­tine Rus­sian pay­checks. Af­ter­ward — my fa­vorite de­tail— he jot­ted that ac­count num­ber on the back of his new banker’s busi­ness card and slipped it in his wal­let. Hello? I’m pretty sure my 11-year-old son, a devo­tee of the Alex Rider teenage spy nov­els, would prac­tice bet­ter trade­craft.

Un­sur­pris­ingly, the FBI closed in. Ni­chol­son was ar­rested in Novem­ber 1996 as he pre­pared to board a plane at Dulles Air­port. In his bags were film and diskettes full of clas­si­fied doc­u­ments for the Rus­sians. His Swiss banker’s card was still tucked in his wal­let.

Ni­chol­son pleaded guilty to con­spir­acy to com­mit es­pi­onage and was sen­tenced to 23 years. In 1997 he re­ported to the fed­eral pri­son in Sheri­dan, Ore. And it’s here that the saga takes a truly fas­ci­nat­ing turn. Be­cause while “The Spy’s Son” packs plenty of spy-vs.-spy drama, the most in­ter­est­ing chap­ters are about the bond be­tween a fa­ther and his son.

Nathan Ni­chol­son in­her­ited his dad’s toothy grin and blue eyes. As Den­son tells it, he also in­her­ited Jim’s taste for dan­ger. When fa­ther asked son to pick up where he’d left off with the Rus­sians, Nathan agreed on the spot. This was in the spring of 2006, dur­ing Satur­day vis­it­ing hours at the Sheri­dan pri­son. By that fall, Nathan was driv­ing to the Rus­sian Con­sulate in San Fran­cisco, where he pre­sented him­self to the chief of se­cu­rity and handed over a sealed note from his dad. “So it was,” Den­son writes, that “a dozen years af­ter Jim be­gan spy­ing for the Rus­sians, he sent them his youngest son.”

Den­son spent about 200 hours in­ter­view­ing Nathan. He uses that ac­cess to paint a sym­pa­thetic por­trait of how the 22-year-old was drawn into his fa­ther’s web. We glimpse an ac­com­plice will­ing to do any­thing to please his fa­ther and who re­mained re­mark­ably un­so­phis­ti­cated even as his in­volve­ment es­ca­lated. (One telling anec­dote: Af­ter a Rus­sian spy­mas­ter hands Nathan $10,000 in cash dur­ing an assig­na­tion in Mex­ico City, Nathan chooses not to hit the town but in­stead to hole up at his ho­tel with Pizza Hut take­out and a Dis­ney movie.)

It’s not clear whether Nathan gave Rus­sia any in­for­ma­tion that harmed U.S. na­tional se­cu­rity. Nor is it clear why Jim Ni­chol­son chose to be­tray his coun­try twice or why he would put his son at such risk, send­ing him with no for­mal train­ing into the lion’s den of Rus­sian spooks. Den­son writes that as he pon­dered the ev­i­dence, he flirted with the no­tion “that Jim was born a con­science­less psy­chopath mo­ti­vated by the thrill of pulling the wool over the CIA’s eyes.” More likely, Den­son concludes, is that Ni­chol­son is an ex­treme nar­cis­sist.

We can’t know, be­cause Ni­chol­son can’t talk. While Nathan ul­ti­mately served no pri­son time, his fa­ther re­mains locked away. He is banned from com­mu­ni­cat­ing with his son or with jour­nal­ists. In one let­ter that the FBI did al­low to be re­leased, Ni­chol­son wrote to Den­son: “I don’t have an­swers to some of the ques­tions you might ex­pect me to­know. Some­things have been amys­tery even to me about me.”

Ni­chol­son’s ear­li­est re­lease date is 2024. He will be 73 years old. Un­til then, the man at the cen­ter of this bizarre tale re­mains an enigma, per­haps even to him­self.

It’s not clear why Jim Ni­chol­son chose to be­tray his coun­try twice or why he would put his son at such risk, send­ing him with no for­mal train­ing into the lion’s den of Rus­sian spooks. Ni­chol­son wrote to Den­son: “Some things have been a mys­tery even to me about me.”


Jim Ni­chol­son and his son Nathan, left, pose in a pri­son vist­ing room in 2003. The fa­ther, a for­mer CIA of­fi­cer, was con­victed of es­pi­onage and later — from be­hind bars — asked his son to con­tinue the work.

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