Mary Louise Kelly, a former intelligence correspondent for NPR, is the author, most recently, of the spy novel “The Bullet.”
By Bryan Denson
Atlantic Monthly. 365 pp. $26
As a writer of spy thrillers, I’ve pitched my agent some strange ideas over the years. To her credit, she has enthusiastically embraced plot twists, from a cat that prowls the corridors of the CIA to a terror cell that buries nuclear bombs in crates of Pakistani bananas. But were I to pitch her a plot along the lines of the one that unfolds in “The Spy’s Son,” she would roll her eyes. “It’ll never sell,” I can hear her scolding. “Too far-fetched.”
“The Spy’s Son” tells the true story of Jim Nicholson, the highest-ranking CIA officer ever convicted of espionage. He then became the only American ever found guilty of spying for a foreign government from behind the bars of a federal prison. And here’s the kicker: Nicholson turned his treachery into a family business. After being locked up, he drafted his son to continue selling secrets to Russia.
Bryan Denson, a reporter for the Oregonian, tackles the story with zest. He begins his account in 2009, in the Portland courtroom where he first glimpsed the man who had betrayed the identities of hundreds of CIA recruits to Russian spies. Nicholson cut an underwhelming figure: shuffling, gray-haired, wearing a khaki prison uniform and a faded T-shirt the color of broiled salmon. “I take a mental note,” Denson writes. “This guy would look right at home playing tenor sax in a jazz quartet.”
But Nicholson was no mild-mannered musician. His crimes had begun 15 years earlier, when he was serving in the CIA’s station in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He was also finalizing a divorce, hurting for money and playing single dad to his three kids. The solution to his problems materialized in the form of a senior Russian counterpart, to whom Nicholson volunteered to betray his country for cash. By Denson’s account, Nicholson didn’t struggle with the decision. He figured the CIA had already turned him into a criminal: He had followed orders to break into houses and plant bugs. Besides, by the mid-’90s, Moscow and Washington were cooperating on intelligence matters; Nicholson “didn’t see Russia as the ‘bogeyman’ of yesteryear.”
Nor, apparently, did he see the need to take even basic precautions as he went about his work as a double agent. At a time when he must have known he’d fallen under suspicion — he was subjected to three consecutive polygraphs in the fall of 1995 — he continued jetting off to meet his Russian handlers. In Singapore, he was spotted blithely hopping into a car bearing Russian diplomatic plates. On another trip, he stopped in Zurich and opened an account to stash his clandestine Russian paychecks. Afterward — my favorite detail — he jotted that account number on the back of his new banker’s business card and slipped it in his wallet. Hello? I’m pretty sure my 11-year-old son, a devotee of the Alex Rider teenage spy novels, would practice better tradecraft.
Unsurprisingly, the FBI closed in. Nicholson was arrested in November 1996 as he prepared to board a plane at Dulles Airport. In his bags were film and diskettes full of classified documents for the Russians. His Swiss banker’s card was still tucked in his wallet.
Nicholson pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit espionage and was sentenced to 23 years. In 1997 he reported to the federal prison in Sheridan, Ore. And it’s here that the saga takes a truly fascinating turn. Because while “The Spy’s Son” packs plenty of spy-vs.-spy drama, the most interesting chapters are about the bond between a father and his son.
Nathan Nicholson inherited his dad’s toothy grin and blue eyes. As Denson tells it, he also inherited Jim’s taste for danger. When father asked son to pick up where he’d left off with the Russians, Nathan agreed on the spot. This was in the spring of 2006, during Saturday visiting hours at the Sheridan prison. By that fall, Nathan was driving to the Russian Consulate in San Francisco, where he presented himself to the chief of security and handed over a sealed note from his dad. “So it was,” Denson writes, that “a dozen years after Jim began spying for the Russians, he sent them his youngest son.”
Denson spent about 200 hours interviewing Nathan. He uses that access to paint a sympathetic portrait of how the 22-year-old was drawn into his father’s web. We glimpse an accomplice willing to do anything to please his father and who remained remarkably unsophisticated even as his involvement escalated. (One telling anecdote: After a Russian spymaster hands Nathan $10,000 in cash during an assignation in Mexico City, Nathan chooses not to hit the town but instead to hole up at his hotel with Pizza Hut takeout and a Disney movie.)
It’s not clear whether Nathan gave Russia any information that harmed U.S. national security. Nor is it clear why Jim Nicholson chose to betray his country twice or why he would put his son at such risk, sending him with no formal training into the lion’s den of Russian spooks. Denson writes that as he pondered the evidence, he flirted with the notion “that Jim was born a conscienceless psychopath motivated by the thrill of pulling the wool over the CIA’s eyes.” More likely, Denson concludes, is that Nicholson is an extreme narcissist.
We can’t know, because Nicholson can’t talk. While Nathan ultimately served no prison time, his father remains locked away. He is banned from communicating with his son or with journalists. In one letter that the FBI did allow to be released, Nicholson wrote to Denson: “I don’t have answers to some of the questions you might expect me to know. Some things have been a mystery even to me about me.”
Nicholson’s earliest release date is 2024. He will be 73 years old. Until then, the man at the center of this bizarre tale remains an enigma, perhaps even to himself.