Published November 17, 2014
The son of one of the highest-ranking CIA officers to betray his country dodged a prison sentence Tuesday after making a deal with prosecutors to help build their case against his father.
Nathan Nicholson apologized in court for his role in a scheme to get his father's Russian handlers to pay the man he once idolized: Harold "Jim" Nicholson, who is serving 24 years at a federal prison in Oregon for his 1997 espionage conviction.
U.S. District Judge Anna Brown sentenced Nathan Nicholson to 5 years on probation and 100 hours of community service after agreeing with a joint recommendation by prosecutors and defense attorneys who said he was manipulated and groomed by his father.
"Once this defendant was confronted, he did not hesitate to accept responsibility," Brown said in court.
Nathan Nicholson had already pleaded guilty to acting as an agent of a foreign government at his father's bidding and conspiracy to commit money laundering, and Brown said his actions will remain with him for the rest of his life.
The 26-year-old told The Associated Press and The Oregonian newspaper that he had idolized his father, but "after this, I want to be my own man now. I don't want to live in someone's shadow."
In a case that unfolded like a fictional thriller, from 2006 to 2008 the 26-year-old former Army paratrooper traveled the world at his father's bidding to meet with Russian agents — in San Francisco, Mexico City, Peru and Cyprus — to collect payments the father believed were long overdue.
His father trained Nathan in CIA tradecraft, advising him to hide money from the Russians in different places, to never deposit more than $500 in his bank account, and to pay for trips in cash to avoid a paper trail.
It began in the summer of 2006 when the incarcerated Harold Nicholson asked his son to help him contact the Russian government for "financial assistance," a sort of pension for his past work. Nathan Nicholson, then 22, was a student at Lane Community College.
The younger Nicholson was excited about the prospect of doing clandestine work for his father, according to the sentencing memo.
Harold Nicholson told his son to go to the nearest Russian consulate to make initial contact, and over the next two years, the son met with Russian agents six times. Prosecutors say Russian agents agreed to meet with the younger Nicholson because they wanted to learn how the FBI caught his father and to obtain information about the CIA.
Nathan Nicholson was paid a total of about $47,000 by the Russians.
The imprisoned ex-spy encouraged his son by praising his work, saying "he had performed as well as, or better, than some of the CIA employees" he had trained for the agency, according to the sentencing memo.
But as Nathan Nicholson jetted to meetings with the Russian agents, the FBI was already on to the father and the son. In February 2002, a "concerned citizen" told the FBI that Harold Nicholson may have tried to contact Russian agents through other inmates and an investigation was begun, leading to an indictment in January 2009.
Harold Nicholson pleaded guilty Nov. 8 to the same charges as his son. He faces sentencing Jan. 18.
Harold Nicholson had risen to CIA station chief before he was arrested in November 1996 at Dulles International Airport in Virginia with 10 rolls of film he had intended to hand over to Russian agents. Federal officials say that before his arrest, he had been trotting around the globe to hand off documents to the Russians and that he was paid for his work.
Nathan Nicholson said he was about 10 when he first learned his father worked for the CIA. At the time, Harold Nicholson was an instructor at a CIA training camp in Williamsburg, Va.
The family had moved around a lot, and Nathan said he rarely saw his father but soaked up his stories about Harold Nicholson's own military career in the Army.
In their sentencing memo, federal prosecutors said the elder Nicholson had "significant emotional power" over the son, using his skills to "groom and manipulate him" while in prison.
Nathan Nicholson said he now wants to rebuild his life — a "very frugal" existence on VA benefits and financial aid at Oregon State University, where he's studying computer science.
"I want to restore the honor that was lost," he said.