Ex-Wife's View of Life With an Accused CIA Spy
In the early 1990s, CIA officer Harold Nicholson was a newly appointed station chief at the US embassy in Bucharest, Romania. It was his first chance to run the spy world's equivalent of a branch office, and he was eager to do a good job. Perhaps too eager: One night, while arguing, he accused his own wife of stealing US secrets.Skip to next paragraph
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"He said he had a file on me that was an inch-and-a-half thick," says Laurie Nicholson, who was married to Harold Nicholson from 1973 to 1994. "He said I was passing intelligence information to the Romanians."
There's no evidence Mr. Nicholson ever pressed this point with CIA superiors. For the record, Laurie denies it. But it's an old memory that today may have new meaning. Nicholson himself is now locked in an Alexandria, Va., jail, awaiting trial on a charge of treason.
"One thing I've learned in life is that when people accuse you of something, maybe they're thinking about it themselves," adds the ex-Mrs. Nicholson.
The case of Harold James Nicholson is one of the strangest and most troubling incidents of alleged espionage that US intelligence has faced since the end of the cold war. The reason: Nicholson was a hard-working man on the rise. He was one of the last people co-workers would have picked out as a possible turncoat.
But over the years, almost unnoticed, the ex-Army officer and dedicated intelligence officer may have become a shell - or a parody - of his younger patriot self. Perhaps the problem was the dozens of moves or secret life as a spy. A tough divorce and custody battle must have taken a toll. Maybe he became bitter toward his bosses or simply wanted more money. In the end, charge prosecutors, his motivations changed utterly. "It's hard to imagine anybody devoting so much of their life to one thing, and then throwing it away so easily," says his ex-wife, in her first public comments on the case.
Nicholson was arrested at Dulles Airport Nov. 16 as he attempted to board a plane for Switzerland, allegedly carrying a briefcase stuffed with classified documents. Charged with one count of conspiracy to commit espionage for Russia, he has pleaded not guilty, and indicated through lawyers that he intends to mount a vigorous defense in the trial scheduled to start March 10.
If he did switch sides in the spy game, should the CIA have seen it coming? A look at Nicholson's life - including a lengthy, exclusive interview with his longtime spouse - reveals a man that some might judge tightly wrapped. He pursued work instead of vacations, advancement instead of family relations, and after his divorce struggled with the demands of being an expatriate single father.
But in the CIA such people aren't unusual. "There are a thousand people with problems, and then one goes sour. It's very difficult to predict," says John Davis Jr., who was US envoy to Romania at the end of Nicholson's tenure there.
Nicholson met his future wife in fencing class at Oregon State University (OSU). He made a crack about her weight, and she turned away, miffed. He bet his roommate he could win a date with the petite woman whose white uniform wrapped around her like a tablecloth, and he succeeded. Five days later he proposed. Four months after that they were married.
On the surface, the couple seemed an odd pair. Laurie was more relaxed, a child of the late '60s and early '70s. (After their divorce, Laurie Nicholson changed her name to Al'Aura Jusme, but she has since resumed use of Laurie.) Jim, as friends called him, was the son of an Air Force officer and comfortable with a transient, structured life.
After his graduation, ROTC student Jim accepted a commission in the Army. His geography degree lent itself to intelligence work, and he rose quickly through the ranks. Laurie dutifully moved with him from bases in Kentucky, to California, to an overseas post in Okinawa.
Shortly after their first child, Jeremy., was born in 1978, Jim left the Army for a brief stint at Hallmark Cards in Kansas City. Then, in 1980, he took a job in an agency on the rise: the CIA.