In the early 1990s, CIA officer Harold Nicholson was a newly appointed station chief at the US embassy in Bucharest, Romania. It was his first chance to run the spy world's equivalent of a branch office, and he was eager to do a good job. Perhaps too eager: One night, while arguing, he accused his own wife of stealing US secrets.
"He said he had a file on me that was an inch-and-a-half thick," says Laurie Nicholson, who was married to Harold Nicholson from 1973 to 1994. "He said I was passing intelligence information to the Romanians."
There's no evidence Mr. Nicholson ever pressed this point with CIA superiors. For the record, Laurie denies it. But it's an old memory that today may have new meaning. Nicholson himself is now locked in an Alexandria, Va., jail, awaiting trial on a charge of treason.
"One thing I've learned in life is that when people accuse you of something, maybe they're thinking about it themselves," adds the ex-Mrs. Nicholson.
The case of Harold James Nicholson is one of the strangest and most troubling incidents of alleged espionage that US intelligence has faced since the end of the cold war. The reason: Nicholson was a hard-working man on the rise. He was one of the last people co-workers would have picked out as a possible turncoat.
But over the years, almost unnoticed, the ex-Army officer and dedicated intelligence officer may have become a shell - or a parody - of his younger patriot self. Perhaps the problem was the dozens of moves or secret life as a spy. A tough divorce and custody battle must have taken a toll. Maybe he became bitter toward his bosses or simply wanted more money. In the end, charge prosecutors, his motivations changed utterly. "It's hard to imagine anybody devoting so much of their life to one thing, and then throwing it away so easily," says his ex-wife, in her first public comments on the case.
Nicholson was arrested at Dulles Airport Nov. 16 as he attempted to board a plane for Switzerland, allegedly carrying a briefcase stuffed with classified documents. Charged with one count of conspiracy to commit espionage for Russia, he has pleaded not guilty, and indicated through lawyers that he intends to mount a vigorous defense in the trial scheduled to start March 10.
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