Spy story, part two. Even more sordid. Even more shocking.
When CIA counterintelligence officer Aldrich Ames, a weak and petty little man with expensive tastes, was caught selling out his country and the lives of his countrymen for money, Americans lost their innocence about spies.But the Harold Nicholson case is far grubbier and vastly more disturbing.
Ames, convicted and in prison, prompted a thorough revamping and reorganization of the CIA and the intelligence community. Supposedly, another case like Ames - who openly spent more money than he earned, dumped a wife for an exotic foreigner who wanted wealth, drank to excess and traveled abroad passing out information with impunity - could not happen again. Alarm bells from now on would be rigged to go off.
CIA director John Deutch said, "These issues have been dealt with forthrightly and action has been taken and we have placed them behind us."
Not so fast, Mr. Deutch.
After Ames was caught, Nicholson, a divorced man who made $73,000 a year helping to run the CIA's school for spies on a remote 9,000-acre tract in Virginia, was weaving and dodging around the world, practicing what he taught and giving the Russians million-dollar secrets for less than 10 cents on the dollar.
For a year the FBI tailed him. He wasn't as good as he thought he was, because he allegedly got into a car with Russian embassy license tags in Singapore, according to an FBI affidavit. It's depressing. A top spy who wasn't just venal but dumb, too.
Actually, we're talking world-class stupid here. The FBI affidavit claims he left incriminating evidence on his notebook computer. And the FBI says that after Nicholson left the Singapore rendezvous, he paid off his $8,300 American Express bill in cash, paid his $1,680 hotel bill in cash, met his Thai lover in Bangkok and flew with her to Hawaii. In one month, he allegedly spent $32,000 in cash.
Just a few days ago he was photographed in his office kneeling under his desk photographing U.S. files on Russian military readiness. As he prepared to board a plane to Zurich, with secret documents in his bag, he was arrested.
Deutch says about Nicholson: "Our best guess now is that mid-1994 is when he starts really passing stuff. Certainly by '95, we have him very much on our mind as a suspect."
A movie about this guy wouldn't be a dark, sinister tale a la John Le Carre but some zany B-rated flick on Comedy Central.
Except for the damage federal officials say he did.
They say he compromised American agents all over the world and stopped the careers of many trained young public servants before they even got started, selling the names and backgrounds of the students at the CIA spy school.
Certainly, he badly tarnished what was once the proudest intelligence-gathering operation in the world.
He may have compromised U.S. business interests in key Asian cities by disclosing which men and women cooperated with the CIA.
He probably gave secret dossiers on Americans living and working in Russia to the new version of the KGB. How can those Americans feel safe or secure again?
And for what? An estimated $120,000.
Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., the Senate's foremost foreign affairs expert, says of the Nicholson case, "It's absolutely devastating because it happened after the Ames crackdown."
In the hyper-sensitive climate in the U.S. spy world after Ames was exposed as a turncoat who caused the executions of at least 10 American agents abroad, Nicholson was able for two years to get away with selling secrets.
"I think we have an enormous problem here," said Lugar. "That Americans who are trusted and trained have so little patriotism they'd sell out their country is shocking."
Lugar said America needs a major debate on whether it wants a costly intelligence apparatus in a post-Cold War world. Because the United States continues to have many lethal enemies, the answer has to be yes.
But the spy business must be done well. Naivete has to be left at the door. Clearly, some Americans will do anything for money.