Imprisoned former CIA official pleads guilty again

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 8, 2010; 8:00 PM

One of the highest-ranking CIA officials ever to plead guilty to espionage agreed to another guilty plea Monday, this time for having his son travel the world to collect cash from his former Russian spymasters.

Harold James Nicholson, a former senior agency case officer and onetime station chief in Romania, was already serving a 23-year prison sentence for providing Russia with information from 1994 to 1996, including the names of CIA operatives and trainees, in exchange for $300,000.

This time, while in federal prison in Sheridan, Ore., Nicholson passed information to his son Nathaniel, now 25, who from 2006 to 2008 talked with Russian agents around the world at meetings set up using coded e-mail messages. At those sessions, which took place in Mexico City; Lima, Peru; and Cyprus, Nathaniel passed on information he got from his father and in turn collected a total of $47,000, which the FBI described last year as a "kind of retirement 'pension' available to [Nicholson] in Russia."

Nicholson, who was divorced with three children and living parents, instructed his son on how to distribute each cash payment to members of the family.

What the jailed CIA officer did not know was that the FBI had been alerted to his activities in 2002, when a fellow inmate told a paralegal that Nicholson was trying to use him to communicate with Russian authorities. That year, Nicholson asked a cellmate being released to mail a thick manila envelope to his parents after having ripped up and flushed down the cell toilet the ribbon on which he typed the document, according to an FBI affidavit.

Eventually, the FBI received court approval to listen to Nathaniel's cellphone, intercept his e-mail, surveil his apartment in Eugene, Ore., and track his vehicle. Agents who followed him during his overseas travels and upon his return from Cyprus in December 2008 detained him long enough to photocopy his 80-page notebook and find $7,013 in cash, most of which was inside a PlayStation video game case.

The notebook contained explanations for the code he used to communicate with foreign officials as well as a question about his father's capture that might interest the Russians.

Nicholson and his son were indicted in January 2009 on charges of money laundering and conspiracy to represent a foreign government. Nathaniel pleaded guilty in August 2009 and agreed to testify against his father. Prosecutors told reporters at that time that Nathaniel, an Army veteran, might receive probation rather than a prison sentence.

Dwight C. Holton, the U.S. attorney for the District of Oregon, said in a statement Monday that Nicholson "admitted not only betraying his country - again - but also betraying his family by involving his son Nathaniel in his corrupt scheme to get more money for his past espionage activities." Prosecutors have recommended that eight years be added to Nicholson's current sentence.

When he pleaded guilty in June 1997, Nicholson said in court, "I have lost everything that was ever dear and important to me. . . . I am in so many ways so very sorry.''

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