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The Thankless Task of Catching a Spy

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On the evening of Nov. 12, after most of his co-workers had gone home, Harold Nicholson took a wad of classified papers out of a black folder, placed them on the floor under his desk at Central Intelligence Agency headquarters and snapped them with one of the agency's cameras.

Although he had taken the precaution of first scanning the ceiling as he had been trained to do, Mr. Nicholson failed to detect the other camera in his office.

The scene recorded by the hidden lens is among the evidence the Federal Bureau of Investigation says supports charges filed last week that Nicholson had spied for Moscow since 1994. An FBI affidavit contends that the veteran agent planned to give the film of the papers he photographed to his handlers in Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service, the successor of the Soviet KGB.

Nicholson's lawyers said he would plead innocent today at a federal court hearing in Alexandria, Va., to a one-count indictment accusing him of selling to Russia for $180,000 secrets that compromised the nation's security. Among the disclosures for which he is charged, Nicholson is said to have exposed the identities of CIA agents and sources.

In outlining the evidence, the affidavit by FBI Special Agent Michael Lonergan provides a window into one of the most difficult and least glamorous jobs in the world of espionage: counterintelligence.

The work is painstaking and thankless. While agents plug leaks of vital secrets, prosecutions of double agents also spread serious demoralization within the intelligence community and fuel public outrage against agencies unable to publicize their successes.

A former CIA official who worked with Nicholson in Asia says his colleagues are "completely surprised" by his arrest. "He was the most stand-out red-white-and-blue kind of guy."

Talking about staff at the CIA's training center in Virginia, where Nicholson worked as an instructor, the former official says, "Everybody down there is in a state of shock."


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