Ex-Wife's View of Life With an Accused CIA Spy
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The 1980s were good years to be a US spy. Budgets expanded rapidly during the Reagan era, and as the agency prospered, so did Nicholson. He went from Manila to Bangkok to Tokyo. By this point he had three children, and none liked being dragged around the world, according to his ex-wife. Then, in 1990, Nicholson received a plum assignment - Bucharest. Finally, he had a chance to be his own boss.Skip to next paragraph
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The job of a covert CIA agent includes recruiting spies from other nations, while guarding against foreign efforts to similarly penetrate US operations. Romania in the 1990s was in the early stages of a transition to democracy, and it was not exactly a hotbed of spies, such as Casablanca in the 1940s. Yet Nicholson went about his business with zeal - a zeal some others found unnecessary.
"He seemed wildly enthusiastic that the Romanians were up to no good," says Ambassador Davis.
At the same time, his marriage began to break apart. It was obvious to others in the embassy that there was a serious rift between Nicholson and his wife. In the US, counterintelligence agents will watch foreign embassies for hours, hoping to glean some weakness that might be exploited to recruit a turncoat. Was someone doing the same thing to the US embassy in Bucharest?
Laurie Nicholson did not accompany her husband to his next posting in Malaysia. Instead, she returned to Oregon and school and filed for divorce. The estranged couple fought for custody of the children. According to court documents, the judge in the case found both to be good parents, but awarded custody to Jim. As a full-time student, ruled the judge, Laurie was less able to provide a stable environment.
Turmoil in the Nicholson family reportedly caused some US officials who knew the couple in Romania to worry that Jim might be vulnerable to foreign recruitment. In Malaysia these worries abated.
But in June 1994 he secretly accepted $12,000 from an official at the Russian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, according to an affidavit filed in federal court. Federal investigators claim this was the beginning of Nicholson's espionage against the US, which they say finally began to unravel after he failed some questions on a routine CIA polygraph in late 1995.
Last Nov. 17, Laurie Nicholson returned a phone call from her brother. He'd tried to reach her the night before, but Laurie - a recent geology graduate - had been working in the field at a national monument. The brother told her that her ex-husband had been arrested on spy charges and that she'd better get up to Eugene. The FBI wanted to talk to her. "I cannot honestly say I was shocked," she says now, "but I can't say I expected it either."
Later she talked to two FBI agents for 90 minutes. They wanted to know about Jim's personality and habits. She says that in her opinion her ex-spouse was rather controlling. She also says he'd liked to spend money, and that the children told her he had been griping about lack of cash.
Today she says she is not sure if her husband is really guilty. "I don't know all of the evidence against him," she says.
She can't square Jim's years of careerism with what he's accused of. And it makes no sense to her that he would risk all knowing the potential impact on his kids.
"I know he loves them," says Laurie, who nevertheless has filed suit for custody of their two younger children, now 15 and 12.
Whatever happens to Jim Nicholson, his children have already been negatively affected. They have been living with their grandparents in Oregon, uprooted with few possessions. Jeremy has dropped out of college, and the government is trying to take away his car and computer, according to his mother. "I told them all what their father's job was when they were 12. They've kept their mouth shut. They've done a good job. Why should they have to suffer?" says Laurie.
According to an FBI affidavit, however, there is evidence that Nicholson mingled cash from Russian contacts with his children's assets. He maintained at least three credit union accounts jointly with his children, says the FBI. In addition, a recorded phone conversation indicates that he gave his son $12,000 for a car shortly after he allegedly received a clandestine payment.
His kids remain one of Nicholson's few joys. "They are the most important thing in his life," says his attorney, Jonathan Shapiro. "He talks to them every day."