The government says veteran CIA officer Harold Nicholson passed secrets to Russia for the same reason that lures most Americans who have betrayed their country: money.
Mr. Nicholson's arrest this week for allegedly selling classified information to Moscow, including the identities of fellow agents, is the latest in a series of cases in which such charges have been brought against other United States government employees.
What these cases underscore is that despite the end of the cold war, US government and corporate secrets are as vulnerable to theft as ever by those to whom they are entrusted. Indeed, officials and independent experts warn, the threat will likely grow given the hunger of allies and foes alike for information that could give them an edge over the US in the fierce global struggle for military, technological, and financial dominion.
But US officials also insist that the Nicholson case differs from the others in one crucial respect. They say it demonstrates the improved level of cooperation in counterespionage by the FBI and CIA since the unprecedented damage wrought by the CIA officer-turned-Russian-spy Aldrich Ames.
"In the Ames case, the cooperation between the CIA and FBI was not great," says CIA director John Deutch. "Here there was complete cooperation and information exchange from the beginning."
Mr. Deutch stresses that "we must remain vigilant to the penetration of US national security organizations by Russia and other hostile intelligence services."
Despite the new era of diplomatic amity, the Russian External Security Service - the successor to the KGB - continues to be one of the most aggressive intelligence agencies seeking American government and corporate secrets.
"We've seen no reduction in the efforts of the (Russian) external security service to penetrate the security services and the national security of the United States," says FBI Director Louis Freeh.
Roy Godson, head of the National Strategy Information Center, a Washington-based intelligence think tank, says other states, including US allies such as France and Israel, are just as active in trying to steal secrets from American government agencies and companies.
"The Russians are not alone in this. Several hundred thousand of some of the best minds in the world are trying to pick our pockets," says Dr. Godson. "They are particularly interested in learning about our technology and influencing us to do things in their interests."
"Nations need to know each other's secrets. What we are learning is that it is independent of the cold war and ideological hostilities," notes Alan Goodman, a former CIA official who is now a dean at Georgetown University, in Washington. "As long as you have intelligence services, they are going to try to get things you'd rather they not have."
THE CIA and FBI are still trying to determine the extent of the damage done by Nicholson, a onetime station chief who worked as an instructor at the CIA's training center from 1994 to July 1996. It was during that period that he is charged with working for Russia.
Preliminary indications are that the information Nicholson allegedly sold for more than $100,000 was "highly sensitive." The FBI suspects that Nicholson may have disclosed the identities of all new CIA agents trained since 1994, as well as the names of some field agents. "The passing of such information placed those officers lives, as well as the lives of their foreign contacts, in danger," says Mr. Freeh.
But officials do not believe that Nicholson's disclosures led to the death of any agents or informants. The secrets passed by Mr. Ames, who was paid $2.5 million over more than eight years for information, led to the executions of more than a dozen foreigners on the CIA payroll. Ames was arrested in 1994.
Officials say Nicholson's disclosures may not be as harmful as those made by Ames because of the speed with which his activities were detected and stopped. They note that his apprehension was more remarkable because Nicholson had exhibited none of the unusual behavior or personal problems - such as Ames's alcoholism - that normally set off alarms.
"The fact that Nicholson was apprehended so relatively early in his spying was in large part a result of the post-Ames reforms put into place as a result of lessons that tightened up counterintelligence and security," says one government official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Those included more stringent disclosures and scrutiny of employee financial records and computer records."
An FBI affidavit says counter-intelligence operatives first became suspicious of Nicholson during an October 1995 polygraph test in which he gave a deceptive answer about whether he had ever had contact with foreign agents.
During the subsequent probe, Nicholson was seen riding in a Russian Embassy car last June in Singapore. A month later, he made $20,000 in bank deposits and bought his son a $12,000 car, the affidavit says. Nicholson was monitored photographing top-secret CIA documents last week, four days before he was arrested at Dulles International Airport.