The Spy’s Son

Title:                      The Spy’s Son

Author:                 Bryan Denson

Denson, Bryan (2015). The Spy’s Son: The True Story of the Highest Ranking CIA Officer Ever Convicted of Espionage and the Son He Trained to Spy for Russia. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press

LCCN:    2015487363

JK468.I6 D455 2015


  • 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 for more than two years, Jim Nicholson 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 while behind the bars of a federal prison, he groomed the one person he trusted most to serve as his stand-in: his youngest son, Nathan.


Date Updated:  January 4, 2017

Caveat. Perpendat itaque lector cavendum (civilis).[1]

Reviewed by Hayden B. Peake[2]

On 17 June 1994, just two months after onetime CIA officer Aldrich Ames was sentenced to life in prison, CIA operations officer James Nicholson volunteered his services to the Russian intelligence service (SVR) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Nicholson knew the Ames story and rationalized that “the SVR might be in the market for another highly placed mole inside the CIA.” (p. 54) They were. Bryan Denson, an investigative reporter with The Oregonian, first saw Nicholson in a Portland, Oregon, courtroom on 29 October 2009, where he was charged with espionage for a second time. Nicholson’s 20-year-old son, Nathan, was also in the courthouse that day and later would be charged with the same crime. Denson spent the next five years investigating the circumstances that led to this extraordinary situation. A. Spy’s Son tells what he discovered.

Denson would learn that on 5 June 1997, Harold James Nicholson had first been sentenced to 23 years, 7 months for spying for the Russians. Most of his story was in the public record and he reports it in A Spy’s Son to lay the groundwork for the unknown part of the story: how did Nathan come to be charged with espionage and what role had his father played? Answers to these questions came gradually as Denson established contact with Nathan, his sister, brother, and mother—long divorced from James.

Nathan, the youngest of the three children, was also the closest to his father and visited him frequently in prison not far from his Oregon home. It was during these visits that James “recruited” his son. During their meetings in the prison’s visiting room, he instructed Nathan how to contact the SVR and how to convince them his father wished to cooperate again from prison. James told Nathan he would be paid and that he could use the money for family expenses, including education. Nathan was soon his father’s enthusiastic agent. Denson describes how James took advantage of the prison’s incredibly lax security to pass written instructions and other details to Nathan, undetected. Nathan contacted the SVR successfully and met with his father’s former case officer multiple times at various locations, including in Mexico and Cyprus—always returning with cash.

Things went well for a couple of years and then Nathan was arrested by the FBI. How was he discovered? Why did he confess, and what happened to Nathan and his father after they were convicted? Denson answers these questions convincingly, though on some key points he only identifies his sources as “counterintelligence experts.” (p. 296) The only other weakness in the book is the lack of sourcing on biographical detail.

A Spy’s Son illuminates a dark corner of espionage history: narrative journalism at its best.


Another Review

Of the American intelligence and military officers who spied for the Soviet Union and successor Russia, who deserves the most scorn for odious conduct? Topping any list would be Aldrich Ames of the CIA, whose treachery cost the lives of sources working for the United States, followed closely by Robert Hanssen of the FBI, who gave the KGB the bureau’s “game plan” for tracking spies.

After reading Bryan Denson’s superbly entertaining and informative book, my own choice is James Nicholson, a CIA officer who not only spied for the Russians, but dragged his young son into the messy vortex of treachery—and prison.

Nicholson began his career as a case officer who did exemplary work in the Far East. He then served as an instructor at the agency’s training center in Virginia (“the Farm”) and as a deputy branch chief in the counterintelligence center.

Concurrently, however, Nicholson had another master: Russia’s Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedld [Слу́жба вне́шней разве́дки], or SVR, successor to the KGB. Beset by financial troubles stemming from a divorce (and carefree spending) Nicholson entered the Russian embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in 1994, and volunteered his services.

After establishing his bona fides as a CIA officer, Nicholson was blunt. “I need twenty-five thousand dollars,” he said. “That should not be a problem,” the SVR officer replied. Nicholson received the $25,000 at a subsequent meeting, with the promise that $75,000 more was being held for him.

Nicholson’s assignment to the Farm was of inestimable value to the Russians. He gave the SVR the true identities of hundreds of career trainees, or CTs, “many of whom would be sent overseas on their first tours—some to Russia.”

Nicholson’s betrayal doomed these young peo¬ple’s careers from the outset. One shudders at the con-sequences: brave women and men enter on hazardous duty for their country, only to have their lives blighted by Nicholson. To be sure, they could continue to work for CIA, but not in the covert positions for which they were trained. And although the CIA does not supply statistics, appearances are that case officers progress faster than those in analytical positions.

But Nicholson’s days as a spy were numbered. In the wake of the Ames scandal, President Clinton ordered the FBI to work with the CIA to search out other bad apples. The forced partnership worked. A Russian source meanwhile gave information that cast suspicion on Nicholson.

And here Mr. Benson goes into a recitation of counterintelligence tradecraft that will please any buff. (He obviously benefited from “official” cooperation.) CIA officer Paul Redmond and FBI agent Ed Curran teamed to put Nicholson under a· tight surveillance—electronic and physical—that ended with his arrest at Washington Dulles International Airport as he was about to board a plane for Europe. He was carrying 74 classified documents, including some “top secret,” and access information for a Swiss bank account.

In plea-bargaining with prosecutors, Nicholson admitted taking $300,000 from SVR (his agency salary netted him $2,900 monthly). His sentence: 23 years and seven months. The agreement called for imprisonment in Oregon, so he could be near his three children.

Nicholson used this well-meaning gesture, however, to bring ruin to his youngest son, Nathan, who was just 12 years old when his father went to prison. Not unlike other case officers, Nicholson’s work schedule and travel meant that he gave his children scant attention when they were growing up. Perhaps seeking family redemption, Nathan entered the Army hoping to be a ranger. A spinal injury in a parachute jump dashed this ambition. Perpetually broke, deeply depressed, he fell victim to his father’s entreaties to continue spy work for the Russians,

During prison visits, Nicholson gave his son crudely coded messages on how to renew contact with SVR handlers, and thoughts on how such spies as Ames were detected. Nathan met SVR contacts in Cyprus and Mexico City, each time receiving stacks of $100 bills. Somehow Nicholson convinced the lad he was doing nothing illegal.

Counterintelligence prevailed once again, and soon a sobbing Nathan was asking, “What have I done? I love my country!” As Mr. Benson writes, he “failed to grasp that his principle betrayer was his own dad.” An understanding judge gave him probation.

Nicholson received a further eight years. In court, he thanked the Russians for trying to “help my children,” and concluded with a stunning statement, “I regret the embarrassment that this has caused them [the Russians] as well.”

Mr. Benson used interviews with Nathan, and voluminous letters between father and son, to write a novelistic account of an American tragedy—and what is easily the best intelligence book of the year.

[1] On occasion, personal loyalties and opinions can be carved in stone and defended with a vengeance — at times with some venom thrown in. In these situations, the actual importance of the subject matter is dwarfed by the amount of aggression expressed. Retain a sense of proportion in all online and in-person discussions. [From The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies.]

[2] Peake, Hayden in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (21, 3, Fall/Winter 2015, pp. 124-125). Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Operations. Most of these reviews appeared in recent unclassified editions of CIA’s Studies in Intelligence, Other reviews and articles may be found online at


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