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CIA turncoat sentenced to 23 years in prison

June 5, 1997
Web posted at: 12:26 p.m. EDT (1626 GMT)
Nicholson photo

ALEXANDRIA, Virginia (CNN) -- After apologizing for being a Russian spy, confessed CIA double agent Harold Nicholson was sentenced on Thursday to 23 years and seven months in prison. He is the highest-ranking CIA officer ever caught spying.

Nicholson, who has cooperated with investigators, could have received a life sentence. He pleaded guilty March 3 to selling national security secrets to Moscow for 2 1/2 years. Authorities said he was paid $300,000 by his Russian spymasters.

Nicholson told the court he deeply regretted having sold out his country.



"I won't ask for forgiveness of my colleagues and countrymen, for I know they can't give it. ... I have lost everything that was ever dear and important to me, everything that was ever of value."

-- convicted spy Harold Nicholson


"I am in so many ways so very sorry," he said, adding, "I won't ask for forgiveness of my colleagues and countrymen, for I know they can't give it."

Nicholson, a divorced father of three, said he turned to selling secrets to the Russians to get money to compensate his children after "failing to keep my marriage together."

"I reasoned I was doing this for my children and I will ask for the forgiveness of my children," he said. "I have lost everything that was ever dear and important to me, everything that was ever of value."

Life sentence avoided

In imposing the sentence, U.S. District Court Judge James Cacheris matched the request of federal prosecutors, who struck an agreement with Nicholson in which he admitted guilt and agreed to cooperate in exchange for less than a life sentence.

Under U.S. espionage law, the death penalty may only be imposed if death resulted from the crime, or if the defendant gave away the most sensitive types of national security secrets.

In pleading guilty, Nicholson agreed to forfeit his spy gains and any future profit from the sale of his story for books or movies.

Nicholson, a former CIA station chief in Romania, confessed he started spying in June 1994. He acknowledged that he met his Russian handlers four times -- in India, Indonesia, Switzerland and Singapore -- to sell secrets, including the identity of CIA officers.

Acknowledging Nicholson has been cooperative, U.S. Attorney Helen Fahey nevertheless argued that he deserved a long sentence .

"He betrayed his country for money. He was a spy and traitor," she said in court prior to sentencing.

Defense attorney Jonathan Shapiro told the court Nicholson had a long career of accomplishments, often putting his life on the line.

Nicholson was arrested at Dulles International Airport outside Washington on November 16. In December, federal prosecutors revealed that 10 rolls of film of classified documents and still-uncracked coded messages on a computer disk were found on Nicholson as he attempted to leave for Switzerland.

They said Nicholson was on his way to meet with Russian spymasters.

Correspondent Louise Schiavone and Reuters contributed to this report.

 
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