WASHINGTON — 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.
"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.
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.
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."