March 20, 1998


Image of today's outrageJim Nicholson betrayed his country. Jim Nicholson took money, and in return put the lives of his colleagues in danger.

Jim Nicholson thinks he is a victim.

You’ve probably heard part of the story of Jim Nicholson, the highest ranking CIA officer ever to be convicted of espionage. But you may not have heard how unapologetic he is. In an age when every moral failure can be blamed on somebody else, Nicholson sees himself as a victim.

For about $300,000, Nicholson sold the Russians information about 300 CIA trainees. He also admits to providing the KGB with hundreds of secret documents. The information caused a huge amount of damage; careers were destroyed, thousands of man-years of training were wasted, agents were recalled from overseas.

Nicholson was working for the CIA and living in Malaysia, when, as he says, his “priorities changed.” As an American living and working abroad, he had a good life: a maid, a mistress, a luxurious lifestyle. Then he was transferred back to the US. Realizing that he needed some extra cash to maintain his lifestyle, Nicholson decided to turn traitor.

Of course, as a CIA agent, Nicholson was used to breaking the law: “When we work in the field, we do a lot of things that are illegal, but we almost always get away with it. Running agents, putting listening devices in houses, breaking into things. I sort of felt I was above it.”

Nicholson’s began his betrayal seven weeks after former CIA agent Aldrich Ames had been sentenced to life in prison for spying for Moscow. Ames had sold the identity of Soviet citizens working for the CIA, in return for $4.6 million. While Ames is alive and well-fed in prison, ten of the agents he betrayed are dead, executed by the Soviets.

Although Nicholson has pleaded guilty to espionage charges, he thinks the CIA is to blame. “They should have realized I was in trouble and intervened,” thinks the spy. Of course, the only trouble he was in was that he wanted a lot of money to deposit in
his Swiss bank account. As Robert Chestnut, one of the federal attorneys who prosecuted Nicholson, says, “So he encountered some financial difficulties. Who among us hasn’t?”

Nicholson also expected that, if he were caught, the CIA would simply convert him from a double agent to a triple agent. Thus, he was quite surprised that he was actually arrested.

Using some amazing, but quite modern, logic, Nicholson has also argued that because of his previous service to the country, he should have received a lighter sentence when he was caught working for the other side.

John Lewis, a FBI agent who helped to bust Nicholson, is troubled by the case: “Do we have a new breed of spy? This guy was not a loser. This is a new breed of cat. Is there a breakdown in morality?”


Read more about the Nicholson case in the March issue of GQ. (The Spy Who Loved Women, by David Wise.)

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