Investigative reporter and Pulitzer Prize–finalist Bryan Denson tells the riveting story of the father and son co-conspirators who betrayed the United States.
Jim Nicholson was one of the CIA’s top veteran case officers. By day, he taught spycraft at the CIA’s clandestine training center, The Farm. By night, he was a minivan-driving single father racing home to have dinner with his kids. But Nicholson led a double life. For more than two years, he had met covertly with agents of Russia’s foreign intelligence service and turned over troves of classified documents.
In 1997, Nicholson became the highest-ranking CIA officer ever convicted of espionage. But his duplicity didn’t stop there. While behind the bars of a federal prison, the former mole systematically groomed the one person he trusted most to serve as his stand-in: his youngest son, Nathan. When asked to smuggle messages out of prison to Russian contacts, Nathan saw an opportunity to be heroic and to make his father proud.
“Filled with fascinating details of the cloak-and-dagger techniques of KGB and CIA operatives, double agents, and spy catchers . . . A poignant and painful tale of family love, loyalty, manipulation and betrayal.” —The Oregonian
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About the Author
Investigative reporter and Pulitzer Prize finalist Bryan Denson tells the riveting story of the Nicholsonsfather and son co-conspirators who deceived their country by selling national secrets to Russia.
Jim Nicholson was one of the CIA's top veteran case officers. By day, he taught spycraft at the CIA's clandestine training center, The Farm. By night, he was a minivan-driving single father racing home to have dinner with his kids. But Nicholson led a double life. For more than two years, he had met covertly with agents of Russia's foreign intelligence service and turned over troves of classified documents. In 1997, Nicholson became the highest ranking CIA officer ever convicted of espionage. But his duplicity didn’t stop there. While behind the bars of a federal prison, the former mole systematically groomed the one person he trusted most to serve as his stand-in: his youngest son, Nathan. When asked to smuggle messages out of prison to Russian contacts, Nathan saw an opportunity to be heroic and to make his father proud.
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"The integrity of the upright shall guide them; But the perverseness of the treacherous shall destroy them."
— Proverbs 11:3, The Holy Bible (ASV)
Eugene, Oregon, fall 2008
The morning of October 10 dawned cold and gunmetal gray in Eugene, a college town so accustomed to autumnal gloom that the young man with sleepy blue eyes gave it scarce notice. Nathan Nicholson hiked across an elevated walkway from his drafting class toward the Lane Community College library, which sat in the middle of campus in the aptly named Center Building. Behind him, a thicket of towering evergreens carpeted the coastal mountains, which stretched fifty miles west to the Pacific Ocean, clouds draping their rounded shoulders like tattered shawls.
Nathan wore his hair razor-close on the sides, with a little longer patch on top, a style his barbers back in the Army called high and tight, and which, not by accident, disguised his receding hairline. He moved with an infantryman's gait, chest out, head and shoulders barely rising, stocky legs chewing up ground. But there was a slight hitch in his stride, as if his left leg were stepping over imaginary glass, a parting gift from the parachuting injury that ended his military career. He had turned twenty-four that summer.
The air felt cool on Nathan's face, his strong brow and broad chin, and he could see his breath. The first rains of winter had begun early in the Willamette Valley, where even longtime residents herald the onset of the soggy season with low-grade despair. Soon would come a monotonous series of drizzles, rolling off the Pacific as if by conveyor belt, delivering the valley so many short, gray days that by February, some folks would begin to joke about eating the barrel of the nearest gun.
Nathan was not a native Oregonian, and he sometimes missed the more exciting climates of his boyhood. His dad's foreign assignments sent the Nicholson family to punishing places. Manila, with its blistering humidity and electrical storms you could feel under your feet. Bangkok, often called the hottest city on the planet. Kuala Lumpur, where monsoons deliver a hundred inches of hard rain a year. And Bucharest, with its pipe-bursting winter freezes. He also missed the rotations, traveling from embassy to embassy, uprooting every few years to start fresh someplace new.
Outside the library, Nathan slipped a black-and-gray Alpine backpack off his shoulder and knelt on the cool brick walkway as if to tie his shoe. He hunched over the pack for an instant, letting his eyes casually sweep the commons, panning faces and forms. One intense glance from anyone and he would bail, circling back later for another try. But he saw nothing suspicious.
Nathan unzipped the pack's front compartment and lifted out a small notebook with a blue, marbled cover. He flipped through its pages until he reached a twenty-eight-word notation that began, "Hola Nancy." He studied it for a few moments and climbed to his feet, satisfied he could e-mail the message just as the Russian had dictated the previous winter in Peru.
His gut was tormenting him again. For many months, stabbing pains deep beneath his breastplate had intermittently doubled him over. He was convinced that the stress of the last year had given him stomach ulcers. His meals bunched in his belly like piles of tacks. He'd seen a doctor at the college's health clinic, who told him to drink green tea, carry Pepto-Bismol, and avoid tomato juice. Nathan thought she'd seemed unconcerned, even dismissive of his pains, as if she considered college students exempt from the titanic stresses that produce big-boy ulcers. She had not appeared to comprehend the depth of his anxieties, nor could she. There was no way for her to know that for two years he had traveled the Americas as his father's agent to Russia's foreign spy service, and now feared he might be under surveillance by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Inside the library Nathan followed tan-gray industrial carpet past bookshelves topped with busts of famous literary and historic figures. From across the room, the figures of Will Rogers, Benjamin Franklin, and Frederick Douglass were locked in a perpetual stare-off with Ernest Hemingway, Albert Einstein, and Kate Greenaway. Nathan pushed through a doorway into an adjoining classroom that doubled as a computer lab, eyes scanning the room for anyone out of place. He settled in front of one of two dozen Dell monitors spread across rows of white desktops. It had taken him weeks to find this spot, the only computer lab on campus where students weren't required to log in.
Nathan pulled up the Yahoo home page, with its familiar red logo, and tapped in the user name "Jopemurr2" and the password "Florida12." He typed the e-mail from memory, wincing at each word. The sentences looked more ridiculous on the screen than when he jotted them down inside a soundproof room at the Russian Embassy in Lima. His fingers froze for an instant over the keyboard as he listened to the words in his head. They sounded as if someone with clumsy English were speaking a pass-phrase in an old spy movie. Such obvious code. He resisted the urge to revise the words into something approximating authentic human correspondence. The Russian had been specific that he stick to the prescribed text, and Nathan stuck to the script. Yet he couldn't stop himself from waking up the prose with a forest of exclamation marks:
Hola Nancy! It is great to receive your message! I love you too. I hope to see you soon!
The best regards from my brother Eugene!
— Love, Dick
The Russian had assigned them code names. He called himself "Nancy" and gave Nathan the name "Dick." He conferred the sobriquet "Eugene" on Nathan's father, whose years spying for the Russians had brought them all together.
At precisely 9:58 a.m., Nathan saved his e-mail into the draft folder of the Yahoo account. He cleared the web page off his screen and sneaked a casual glance to his side. Earlier he had spied a woman standing behind him. She was still there, eyeing his workstation like someone stalking a stool in a crowded bar. When he stood and reached for his bag, she practically dove for his seat.
Nathan's e-mail, safely parked in the draft file, would remain suspended in cyberspace until the Russian — God only knew where — logged into their shared account and opened the folder to read his message. The note would never travel from one computer to another, leaving a messy trail across the Internet that could link them. The draft folder served as a modern-day dead drop, a spy tool as old as espionage.
Spying, sometimes called the world's second-oldest profession, is complicated business. But the essence of covert communications hasn't changed since a Mesopotamian potter stuck a secret formula for glaze into the hidden compartment of a clay tablet thousands of years ago. Spies use signals — a chalk mark on a bridge, a beer can on a country road, an X on the post of a streetlamp — to let their handlers know they will meet at a prearranged spot. Now they use high-tech gadgets such as Internet remailers and codes embedded in digital photos. But new isn't always better. Old and new tricks work, right up until they don't.
Nathan didn't fully comprehend the risk posed by his face-to-face meetings with the Russian. He was unaware the old man who called himself "George" had been tossed out of the United States, persona non grata, at the apex of the Cold War, or that the meetings George arranged exposed only Nathan to arrest.
There was genius in their Yahoo cyber exchange. It was such a simple hideaway that nearly anyone could pull it off, even a grandfatherly Russian spy born nearly forty years before the advent of e-mail.
Nathan's note confirmed that in precisely two months, he would stand, as instructed, outside a restaurant on the island of Cyprus clenching his backpack in his right hand. There he would meet the Russian, share the latest messages from his dad, and walk away with another bundle of Moscow's money.
Hola Nancy, indeed.
On the first Saturday in December 2008, a metal door clanked behind Jim Nicholson as he peered across a vast rectangle of scuffed linoleum looking for his youngest son. Visiting hours at the Federal Correctional Institution in Sheridan, Oregon, were just under way. Prisoners and their guests took seats on rows of blue plastic chairs, which were bolted together airport-style so that they sat thigh to thigh and faced the same direction. Uniformed guards stationed behind a crescent of painted cinder blocks kept watch over the room. Surveillance cameras spied from above, as families shared snacks and stories, the din of their conversations punctuated by the occasional squeal of a toddler leaving the adjoining playroom.
Jim Nicholson, who had recently turned fifty-eight, was serving the back end of a twenty-three-year stretch for espionage. He stood six feet and weighed 194 pounds, with sloping shoulders and strong arms. A mane of salt-and-pepper hair, more salt than pepper, fell over the collar of his khaki prison shirt, his inmate number — 49535-083 — ironed above the left breast pocket. He wore a tattoo on his right forearm, an Army Ranger emblem inked decades ago and now faded to a greenish glob. On the underside of the same arm was a fresh tat that read "O POS," his blood type.
Jim was a bona fide celebrity among the more than one thousand prisoners at Sheridan, a medium-security prison known as soft time for its standard cohort of bank robbers, cocaine dealers, and identity thieves. The federal lockup ten minutes east of Spirit Mountain Casino has long drawn its share of celebrity prisoners. A parade of them have passed through the complex, including Stacey Koon, the ex–Los Angeles police sergeant convicted for his role in the Rodney King beating, and Marion "Suge" Knight, the founder of hip-hop's iconic Death Row Records. Michael Swango, the serial-killer physician who poisoned at least four patients, turned up at the prison in 1999, the same year Blind Eye: The Terrifying Story of a Doctor Who Got Away With Murder hit bookstores. Later came Robert "Spam King" Soloway, whose botnets corrupted computers worldwide, and Duane R. Moore, the adult film star better known as "Tony Eveready, the Gangsta of Porn."
As it happens, Jim wasn't even the first spy locked up at Sheridan. He had served time with James D. "Jim" Harper Jr., doing life for selling missile secrets to Poland from 1975 to 1983, and Christopher Boyce, who sold satellite secrets to the Soviet Union in the 1970s. Boyce's exploits — espionage, breaking out of a federal prison, and an audacious series of armed bank robberies — were documented in two books and a hit movie, The Falcon and the Snowman.
Jim stood out at Sheridan. He was bright, well traveled, and served as a father figure for younger inmates. He had worked as a quality control inspector in the prison furniture factory, and emceed Sunday worship services in the prison chapel. He cut a charismatic figure as a long-haired, moccasin-wearing, born-again Christian. But he suffered from the deadly sin of vanity. He spent a long time primping in his cell, especially before weekend visits with his family. One of his former cellmates, a Las Vegas bank robber named Phil Quackenbush, snickered when Jim combed dark shoe polish into his beard to look more youthful for his kids.
Nathan was a week shy of thirteen when he first came to see his dad in prison. Hundreds of times since then he had passed through the gates, topped with gleaming coils of razor wire, navigating sign-ins, a metal detector, and a hand-stamp station, to be ushered by corrections officers, room by room, into the bowels of the institution, heavy doors buzzing and slamming behind him, just to reach this scuffed-linoleum visiting room with bars on the windows to spend time with the old man. Nathan considered this his second home.
When Nathan saw Jim across the floor, he stood and hugged him fiercely, kissing his dad's cheek. Seventy-four miles separated Nathan and Jim, save for their every-other-Saturday visits. Their phone conversations were routed through a special line at the CIA and Jim's letters were copied and analyzed before being mailed forward. In spite of the encumbrances, perhaps because of them, father and son had grown extremely close.
Jim had missed much of Nathan's first seven years of life. He was serving on the front lines of the Cold War, a covert operator working to derail and defeat the Soviet Union's influence in the Philippines, Thailand, and Cambodia. Jim's adversaries in the KGB dubbed the U.S. their main enemy. The competing spy services played a high-stakes game of cat-and-mouse as an atomic sword of Damocles — thousands of nuclear missiles — dangled over the planet.
Jim's blind devotion to the CIA kept him working late at night, meeting assets and writing reports. His early exploits in Manila earned him the nickname "Batman," and he was thrilled by his rising star in the agency. But the demands of his work meant that he saw little of his wife and three kids.
Nathan barely knew his father until his parents' marriage shattered in the early 1990s. He and his older brother and sister moved in with their dad in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where they witnessed a monumental shift in his personality. Jim seemed to relish his new role as single dad, joyfully making up for lost time with them.
Years later, Nathan often reminisced about his childhood days with his dad. He remembered lying in bed as Jim settled onto the floor next to him, adjusting a pillow behind his back to read the woodsy sketches of humorist Patrick F. McManus. Jim would clear his throat with comic flair, animating McManus' comic characters with a wide range of voices. The nighttime readings often left them laughing so hard that Nathan had to grab his gut as the old man fought to get the next sentence out.
The bedtime stories would end a few years later, when the rubric of their father-son narrative would divide into the time before Jim's arrest in 1996 and everything that followed. But Nathan would never let go of the dad he remembered in his youth, as Jim turned from U.S. intelligence officer to convicted spy, and eventually a federal prisoner.
Nathan gestured toward a bank of vending machines, which sat on the other side of a red stripe on the floor. Inmates were forbidden from crossing the line.
"Hey, Pa, you want anything?"
Jim ordered his usual, and Nathan trooped off with a handful of bills. He returned from a microwave moments later with two jalapeño cheeseburgers in steaming plastic bags and a pair of ice-cold Coca-Colas. He set their meal on the tray between them. Jim tore open a packet of taco sauce and got right down to business. He wanted to review Nathan's travel plans, and make sure he was completely prepared for his trip to Cyprus. He needed every detail. Departure times. Layovers. Arrivals.
Nathan walked his dad through every leg, sounding like a determined Army clerk briefing the base commander. On Monday he would fly out of Portland to New York's JFK International Airport, connecting in Istanbul for a Turkish Airlines hop across the Mediterranean Sea to Ercan International Airport, on the island of Cyprus. As Jim had instructed, Nathan had reserved his airline tickets with a credit card, but paid for them with $1,584.41 in cash to avoid a paper trail. Jim had told him to find a high-class hotel, which would be safer, and Nathan had used his Visa Citi Platinum card to book a room at the Cyprus Hilton, the best hotel in the capital city of Nicosia. He would pay that tab in cash, too, and ask the desk clerk to delete records of his credit card. Nathan had tucked an extra $294 into his Delta ticket papers for spending money on the six-day trip.
Jim nodded approvingly. He explained to Nathan that the Ercan airport sits in northeastern Cyprus, the Turkish side, which meant he would pass through an armed checkpoint at the Green Line on the taxi ride to his hotel on the Greek side of the capital city. He gave his son a primer on the long conflict between the Greeks and Turks, how Nicosia remained the world's last divided city. Jim leaned closer, asking Nathan in a near whisper to walk him through his cover story.
Nathan quietly explained that if he was stopped by the feds, by anyone, he would say he had flown to Cyprus to meet Army buddies and tour a few castles.
Jim told him that when he checked into the Hilton, he should ask a desk clerk if any of his buddies — phantoms though they were — had left a message for him. He told his son to stop by the desk daily to ask about his friends, solidifying his cover. Jim reminded Nathan that throughout his stay in Nicosia, he needed to remain keenly alert for tails. It was crucial that he not be followed into his meeting with the Russian. The Mediterranean city has long been a hot spot for spies and counterspies, and Jim knew the FBI kept watch on the Russian Embassy. Nicosia had served as a key locale for Cold War spying between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, partly because of its nexus to Europe, Asia, and the turbulent Middle East. Spies on both sides liked tours there. The sandy beaches at nearby Larnaca were heavenly.
The key thing to pack, he said, was the letter Jim had mailed him that summer; it was intended for the Russian. Jim also reminded him to carry the address for his fiancée, Kanokwan Lehliem, who had served as his interpreter — and a great deal more — during a bloody 1980s border war in which Cambodian refugees spilled in waves into her native Thailand. Kanokwan had pledged to wait for Jim until he got out of prison, and he wanted Nathan to wire her some money from Cyprus.
Nathan listened obediently as the old man laid out his to-do list, but he was way ahead of him. Stuck to the fridge in his apartment was a yellow Post-it with a long checklist of things to pack, including all the items Jim reminded him to bring. The first item on Nathan's list, however, was the Holy Bible his dad bought him for his eighteenth birthday. He carried it for inspiration.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Spy's Son"
Copyright © 2015 Bryan Denson.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Prologue: Suspected Spies in Chains,
One: Hola Nancy,
Two: First CIA Tour, Manila Station,
Three: "Batman" Switches Teams,
Four: A New Counterspy Collaboration,
Five: We Have Another Aldrich Ames,
Six: Spy vs. Spy Under Langley's Roof,
Seven: FBI Takedown at Dulles,
Eight: Forsaken All Allegiance to His Homeland,
Nine: A New Cellblock Celebrity,
Ten: A Fall into Blackness,
Eleven: The Russian Consulate, San Francisco,
Twelve: A Spy Named "George",
Thirteen: Faith, Prosperity, and The Door,
Fourteen: CIA Detects Codes, Espionage, Again,
Fifteen: Keep Looking Through Your New Eyes,
Sixteen: FBI Offers a Mulligan,
Seventeen: Inmate 734520,
Eighteen: A Spy Swap and Reparations,
Epilogue: The Last Asset,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The Spy’s Son keeps you on the edge of your seat in this non- stop action paced read. Mr. Denson has a fascinating way of writing that keeps you turning the pages without lifting an eye. Each and every word will hold you captivated. His words just fly off the page into your mind with every detail written, like you are investigating right along side of him. Very sad to learn how a father could trick his own son into working as a spy and knowing the extreme consequences if caught. Even more so disturbing to see the depth of Jim Nicholson’s secret world and his calculating ways. You won’t be disappointed in the least for picking up a copy of this book, go buy it while it is red hot! 10 Stars plus!!
I found it interesting that Clinton's appointees reduced the number of middle eastern informants so drastically as to render the advance of terrorists inevitable. Interesting also as to how a man so fond of spouting Bible versus could so manipulate his son and entice him into becoming a traitor also.