CNN  — 

Surrounded by FBI agents and US marshals, Bryan Denson’s first encounter with an ex-CIA spy nicknamed “Batman” came in 2009 in a Portland, Oregon, courtroom.

But as Jim Nicholson faced the judge, Denson noticed the ex-spy’s expression bore little of the hero-like confidence that earned him his nickname during his 26 years serving the US government.

Denson says in 1997, Nicholson became the highest-ranking CIA officer ever convicted of espionage, after selling the identities of hundreds of CIA trainees and troves of highly classified files to Russia’s foreign spy service.

On this January day, though, Nicholson entered court to answer new charges: that he had not only reconnected with the Russians from inside prison, but had enlisted his son, Nathan Nicholson, to serve as his intermediary.

Both father and son pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges. Nathan avoided prison, but was sentenced to five years of probation and 100 hours of community service. Meanwhile, Jim received an eight-year sentence to be served consecutively with the 23 years he was already serving for his previous crimes.

Nathan Nicholson visited his father, Jim Nicholson, in prison around Christmas 2003.

Denson, an investigative journalist, spent the next seven years covering the case for The Oregonian newspaper and then later for his book about the father-son spy duo, “The Spy’s Son.”

What he discovered was a heartbreaking story of daring espionage, a son’s undying devotion to his father, and the devastating consequences when that trust is betrayed.

CNN spoke to Denson about the unique saga of Jim and Nathan Nicholson. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

CNN: What do you think really motivated Jim Nicholson to commit these acts of betrayal? Was it greed and hubris, or something more sinister?

Bryan Denson: Jim’s desire for money was a big part of it, but I still say that what drove his desire for money was his extraordinary ego.

I think that Jim wanted the money, but more than that, he wanted to get that money to people who would then love him for that – his kids, primarily, and to some extent his fiancée, who he was sending money to as well.

CNN: In the book, Jim’s colleagues describe him as a formidable spy, but he made some mistakes that helped the FBI build its case against him. Do you think Nicholson was given too much credit for his smarts or did other factors – like his ego – play a part in his less than-intelligent decisions?

Bryan Denson: Jim made some bad decisions. … The one that immediately comes to mind is him stepping into a car with (Russian) diplomatic plates on it in Singapore when he was under surveillance.

Jim carrying the business card of his Swiss banker in his wallet at the time he was about to fly overseas to Switzerland was almost laughable. But the truth is, there’s no perfect way to betray your country or to move around the world without having problems.

CNN: Jim has three children but chose his youngest – Nathan – to continue spying for Russia after he went to prison. Why do you think he chose him?

Bryan Denson: Nathan was the most like Jim and would have done anything to please his dad. And Jim knew that. He used that vulnerability and the fact that Nathan was despondent over having washed out of the army with a back injury. He used both of those vulnerabilities to his advantage.

CNN: One of the scenes that stood out to me in the book is the scene where Nathan is sitting on his bed and injuries have just derailed his military career and he’s contemplating suicide. Then the phone rings and it’s his dad calling from prison, and he unintentionally talks Nathan down from going through with it. How do you think that influenced Nathan’s decision to execute Jim’s plan to reconnect with the Russians?

Bryan Denson: I don’t think there’s any question that he felt that his father reaching him on the phone was something straight from the divine.

I think the attempted suicide and Jim’s accidental intervention were pivotal. It marked a point where Nathan clearly saw his dad as a kind of protector, and Nathan clearly wanted to get closer to his dad after he returned to Oregon. I think that issue and Jim’s slow grooming of Nathan made him the perfect victim of Jim’s manipulation.

Nathan Nicholson avoided a prison sentence in 2010 for his role as his father's liaison with the Russians.

CNN: Throughout the book, you talk about all the steps Jim took to hide Nathan from the danger he was in by working for the Russians. How much do you think Nathan actually understood about the trouble he was getting himself into?

Bryan Denson: I don’t think Nathan ever fully understood that he was committing felony crimes when working as his dad’s agent. The truth is Nathan never knew until well after his arrest what Jim was really doing.

And it was long after that in our conversations, when I was pointing out what the Russians were looking for, when Nathan finally cottoned to the whole idea that he was doing something that was really, really wrong – he was helping the Russian federation, and he was serving as an agent of the Russian federation, rather than as his dad’s agent. 

CNN: In light of all that’s happened between them, how does Nathan feel today about the nature of his relationship with his dad?

Bryan Denson: Nathan still has a number of questions that he will one day ask his father … not the least of which is, how on earth could you have done this? How could you have not shared with me the dangers? Because I’m pretty convinced, knowing Nathan very, very well now, that Nathan would have turned his dad down if he’d understood that his dad was asking him to commit a felony. 

The other question that Nathan will ask him is: After everything that happened, was it worth it to anybody? 

CNN: They are not allowed to communicate, correct? But does he even want to speak with his father?

Bryan Denson: They are not allowed to communicate at all. My sense from Nathan is that he’s resigned to the fact that he will not be able to talk to his dad until 2024, when his dad gets out of prison. But it certainly weighs on him. It’s the primary source of sadness in his life.

Inside the spy-versus-spy operation that took down a CIA turncoat

By Bryan Denson

In the annals of American espionage, Jim Nicholson holds four superlatives.

He’s the highest-ranking CIA officer convicted of selling America’s secrets to a foreign nation. He’s the only US intelligence officer convicted twice of betraying his country. And he’s the only one to have pulled it off from behind prison bars.

But Nicholson’s fourth dishonorable distinction offers the most drama: He’s the only CIA officer ever nabbed in a literal spy-versus-spy operation inside the agency’s headquarters at Langley, Virginia. He was targeted by a brother officer in a daring undercover investigation.

John Maguire became the ultimate “inside man” in a case that shows how far counterespionage investigators will go to catch a mole in their midst. The story of Maguire’s top-secret operation (told for the first time in my book “The Spy’s Son”), provides a rare portal into the persistent spy wars between Moscow and Washington.

John Maguire was enlisted to spy on fellow CIA officer Jim Nicholson as part of the joint CIA-FBI counterespionage investigation that put Nicholson behind bars.

Maguire’s assignment came during a rough patch in his career. He had been “sent home” – agency lingo for being taken out of the field – after getting crossways with his boss. Maguire was exiled to the worst imaginable position for a highly skilled case officer: a desk job in human resources. But in 1996, he was given a chance to redeem himself as part of a joint CIA-FBI counterespionage operation.

Nicholson was also in a crunch. He was a newly single dad teaching tradecraft at the agency’s covert training center near Williamsburg, Virginia, when his superiors reassigned him to headquarters as a counterterrorism branch chief. The promotion to Langley fit the trajectory of a “blue flamer” – an operations officer on the rise.

But little did Nicholson know, his bosses had put him there to keep an eye on him.

That’s where Maguire comes in.

Bryan Denson is an investigative journalist in Portland, Oregon. He’s the author of The Spy’s Son: The True Story of the Highest-Ranking CIA Officer Ever Convicted of Espionage and the Son He Trained to Spy for Russia” (Grove Atlantic, 2015).

We Have Another Aldrich Ames

Langley, Virginia, summer 1996

John Maguire sat in a cubicle village on the second floor of CIA headquarters, a clean, well-carpeted place full of file cabinets and misery. After fourteen years of exciting spy work, he now labored in utter obscurity in a pool of human resources mopes. Maguire had spent most of his years in the agency on the front lines of the Cold War, although more recently he labored as a counterterrorism operative in the Middle East. He had served in such garden spots as El Salvador, Honduras, Lebanon, and Iraq. But now it was abundantly clear that at forty-two, his once-promising career in espionage was over.

Maguire had gotten crossways with his boss, the Near East Division chief, for refusing to take an overseas posting in Karachi, Pakistan. His penance was a position in HR, in the bowels of the CIA’s Original Headquarters Building, part of the agency’s sprawling, highly secured compound in the Langley community of McLean, Virginia. There he drank sweetened coffee and pushed pencils amid the agency’s plebes, poring through the personnel files of other CIA officers to determine those worthy of promotions. He found it disheartening to labor through the applications of agency employees who, unlike himself, might actually be promoted.

Maguire’s ennui was broken, from time to time, by the prank calls of colleagues still performing actual spy work. Some disguised their voices to ask about their promotions packets before busting a gut. Others phoned to make such helpful declarations as, “You’re so f***ed.” One day, in the spring of 1996, Maguire’s phone rang and he heard the voice of Anna, the secretary of the Near East Division.

Anna was a powerful figure in the division, something of an aging Miss Moneypenny, and as part of the senior secretarial pool, she enjoyed the oblique horsepower of her division chief. When Anna called, you paid attention. When you needed help, she was your oracle. Need to proof-check an official memo? She pored over it, caught your errors. Need to reach an overseas leader, a business figure, someone at the White House? She had the number. Screw up badly? She dressed you down, leaving you standing with your shoes smoking as if you’d been struck by lightning. Anna was a striking, statuesque woman with raven hair. All the senior secretaries in the CIA had juice. If they liked you, they could make your life easier. Anna seemed to like Maguire.

Jim Nicholson's 1996 arrest on the tarmac at Dulles International Airport near Washington.

“How are you doing?” she asked.

“I’m trying not to kill myself in my seat,” he said.

“Come upstairs,” he heard her say. “Don’t tell anybody where you’re going. Just leave your desk and come up here to me right now.”


Like so many times in his career, Maguire could only imagine the fresh patch of hell in front of him. He had served seven years as a cop in his native Baltimore, then fourteen more as a spy. He understood the swift, decisive nature of upper-management bureaucrats, whose sudden decrees often fell into subordinates’ laps like hot coals. Maguire hauled his six-foot-three, 195-pound frame out of his chair and slipped away quietly. He caught an elevator to the sixth floor, one level below the penthouse of power, where the Director of Central Intelligence runs the show. There, outside his boss’s door, he found Anna at her desk. She steered him into the office, and the door closed.

He stood in front of a familiar wooden desk, behind which sat Steve Richter, whom he had never seen without a suit and tie. Richter, a key part of the Directorate of Operations, the CIA’s clandestine wing, oversaw spy operations across the Middle East. Maguire thought his boss was one of the smartest and most talented of the agency’s senior intelligence officers, and also one of the most vindictive.

The previous fall, Richter had flown to London to tell Maguire of his next assignment: Karachi. The move would have taken Maguire out of his work in northern Iraq, and he wanted none of it. He had run spy and paramilitary operations in the Middle East nation for five years, having first dropped into Iraq for the Persian Gulf War. Maguire felt invested in Iraq’s future. It had taken years to wrap his head around the country’s complicated, tribally based culture, its Ba’ath Party leadership, and the wickedness of Saddam Hussein and his power-sick sons, Uday and Qusay. He had hoped that his good work would be rewarded with a promotion to a leadership post in Amman or Abu Dhabi.

Maguire asked Richter to let him stay on in London. He was happy there, enjoying what is known in Foreign Service parlance as an “accompanied tour” with his wife and two daughters. Maguire told Richter he hoped to continue his vital work in Iraq, where he had developed locals – sometimes with trunks of cash – to gain secrets from inside Iraq’s seats of power.

Richter hadn’t flown to London to negotiate. He urged Maguire to take the assignment and report to the CIA station in Karachi. That’s when Maguire played his last card. He told Richter that his wife, a registered nurse, had long told him there were only two countries on the planet so full of filth and disease that she refused to raise their girls in them: India and Pakistan. For those reasons, Maguire told his boss, he would have to politely decline the job in Karachi. Richter wasn’t accustomed to being told no. He left Maguire in stony silence.

Soon after, Maguire got the cable letting him know he was being called back to Langley to work in human resources, his requests for posts in the Middle East denied.

Now he found himself standing in front of Richter’s desk.

Maguire’s boss, not known for warm and fuzzy moments with subordinates, didn’t invite him to take a seat. It would be a short meeting. “I have an assignment for you,” Richter said. “I can’t tell you anything about it.” He told Maguire that he needed an answer then and there, and that a yes would be good for his career. If he said no, all he had to do was go back downstairs and never utter a word about the conversation. “You have to give me an answer now,” Richter said. Maguire, flummoxed, glanced to his right. A stranger sat on the couch. The man wore a nice suit and a blue badge denoting him as a CIA staffer. Maguire figured he was a senior agency man. He planted his eyes on Richter’s face to read his reaction to his next words.

“Can I ask a question or two?”

Richter peered at Maguire sourly.

“You can ask,” he said.

Maguire turned to the man on the couch.

“Who’s this guy?”

“I’m Ed Curran,” the stranger said. “I’m the highest-ranking FBI agent assigned inside the CIA.”

F**k me, Maguire thought.

His mind flew back to Iraq and the troubles there. The FBI was still investigating the CIA’s role in organizing an unsuccessful coup that March against Saddam Hussein by his own military. Maguire and his team had rotated into northern Iraq during that covert action (code-named DBACHILLES), which failed. Saddam executed at least eighty of his officers involved in the attempted overthrow.

Maguire feared that the new “assignment” Richter was offering might be a ham-handed setup for questioning by the FBI. The appearance of Curran only deepened his anxiety. Maguire’s choices seemed clear. He could turn down a potentially choice assignment, whatever it was, and retreat to the cubicle dungeon and the slow immolation of his soul. Or he could do as the paratroopers say in that instant before leaping out of airplanes: Pull the cord, trust the Lord.

“F**k it,” he said. “I’ll take it. Whatever it is, I’ll do it.”

“Wise choice,” Richter said.

Maguire could sense by the tone of his boss’s voice that the meeting was over.

Curran, no doubt amused by the exchange, gave Maguire orders: Go downstairs to the lobby. Do not talk to anyone, and tell no one where you’ve been. You’ll meet a couple of FBI agents at the front door, who will give you instructions.

Maguire nodded along.

“OK,” he said.

Outside Richter’s office, he shot a glance at Anna.

She winked.

In an undated photo taken at a CIA function, Jim Nicholson's shirt is rich in irony in light of his crimes.

Moments later, Maguire walked off an elevator on the first floor, turned a corner, and trudged down a half-dozen steps, where he badged through the security turnstiles. He walked past the statue of William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan, a figure who stood literally and figuratively on a pedestal in the agency. Donovan had created the Office of Strategic Services, forerunner to the CIA, which helped win World War II. Maguire stepped across the agency’s iconic lobby, with its massive seal – the head of an eagle atop a sixteen-point compass – laid into cold granite. There he found two men standing in business suits. They flashed their credentials and asked Maguire to follow them. All moved for the front doors.

Maguire found himself seated in the rear of a plain-Jane bureau car, which rolled out of the Langley compound into the northern Virginia suburbs. The ride was a blur of bright green tree canopies, the engine’s drone, and a pair of FBI agents attempting to break the tension with small talk.

Maguire heard one of them ask him, “Whattaya think?”

“Well,” he said, “I’m not used to riding in the back of a police car. It doesn’t fill me with confidence. But I’m not cuffed yet.”

The agents told him to relax. But Maguire, who had served on some of America’s most dangerous streets in Baltimore, didn’t feel fine. When he was a cop, he’d been the one putting perps in squad cars for the free rides to jail.

Soon the car pulled up to a house deep in the suburbs, in a neighborhood Maguire didn’t recognize. The FBI agents led him inside, where he spied a few others. Only then did he fully understand where he’d been taken. He was in a bureau safe house. Agents brought him to a bedroom, where he found an older man sitting behind a desk. The man hooked him up to a polygraph with a confidence that only contributed to Maguire’s unease.

Maguire was accustomed to routine lie-detector tests. The agency wired its clandestine officers to the box every few years, usually when they rotated through headquarters, for single-issue polygraphs. Tests on the box were supposed to help the agency detect turncoats in their midst. But rarely, if ever, did they do anything of the kind.

Polygraph operators place their subjects on a pad that can sense the clenching of their sphincters, a device known by those who’ve sat on them as the “whoopee cushion.” Maguire took his seat, his sphincter already tight enough to crush walnuts. There the older agent connected him to a series of wires that measured his breathing, blood pressure, pulse, and perspiration.

Polygraphers always begin with slam-dunk queries – “Is your name John R. Maguire?” – before asking the subject to respond with a deliberate lie or two. These are called control questions. For instance, the operator might tell a subject to deliberately lie to a question such as, “Have you ever stolen anything?” Few humans can honestly answer that with a no. When the respondent lies, the polygraph’s stylus jiggles, giving the operator a benchmark for later deceptive answers. Relevant questions follow.

Maguire dreaded the first such query, which he imagined would go something like this: “Did you, or did you not, authorize or participate in an attempt to overthrow the regime in Iraq?”

He tried to think ahead. He knew he hadn’t done anything illegal; the actions of CIA officers in the field assigned to wresting Saddam Hussein from power were fully authorized by senior agency officials like Richter. The White House was distancing itself, but officials in the Clinton administration had been briefed directly. Maguire decided that if the agent running the box posed even one question about Iraq, he’d politely ask to speak with his lawyer.

The genteel polygraph operator, perhaps sensing Maguire’s inner tumult, told him to relax, everything was going to be OK. And sure enough, when the older man eventually got around to asking the moment-of-truth questions, they were all about Russia and Russian intelligence. Maguire breathed easier. He had no operational history with the Russians, and if Moscow’s foreign intelligence officers had anything on him, it would have been thin, dated, and focused on his paramilitary past. As far as he knew, he’d never been a target of the KGB or the SVR.

The polygraph took about ninety minutes, and when the operator told him he’d passed, one of the FBI agents led Maguire into another room in the house, which clearly served as a hub for an investigation of some kind. They seated him at a desk, where he signed formal papers by which he swore not to divulge any of the classified information he was about to hear. The agents told him they were from Squad NS-34, a counterintelligence unit based in the Washington Metropolitan Field Office. They occupied a dilapidated building at the confluence of the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers, a gritty corner of DC known as Buzzard Point.

Maguire spied a photograph of a bearded man on the wall. It appeared to be an official CIA photo. He didn’t recognize the face.

Jim Nicholson is the only CIA officer to be nabbed twice betraying his country, and the only one ever caught in a spy-versus-spy operation inside the agency's headquarters.

“You’ve been selected for this position,” one of the agents told Maguire. “We have another Ames, and we have to catch him.”

The FBI and CIA had handpicked Maguire to help catch this new mole. His background as a cop, and his experience testifying in court, made him a shoo-in as a candidate to help the bureau gather evidence inside CIA headquarters and neuter their suspect: Harold James “Jim” Nicholson.

Agents explained that Jim, whom Maguire had never met, was now in his sixteenth year as a CIA operations officer. He taught tradecraft at The Farm, a plum job given to spies who’d proven themselves in the field. Jim, he learned, was a single dad with primary custody of his three kids: Son Jeremi was headed to college; daughter Star and younger son Nathan lived in a two-story government house at Camp Peary, but were soon moving to the family town house in Burke, Virginia.

Maguire knew The Farm well. He had taken his five-month career trainee course and extensive paramilitary training on its grounds before being sent to a CIA demolition school in a covert redoubt in the mid-Atlantic tidewaters. There, he had learned how to build and dismantle all manner of explosives.

The agents had cooked up a scheme for senior CIA officials to call Jim back from The Farm and assign him as a branch chief in the Counterterrorist Center, or CTC, in the Original Headquarters Building. (It was later renamed the Counterterrorism Center.) Maguire would apply to work as the deputy branch chief under Jim. FBI investigators hoped Jim would pick Maguire over other applicants for the position. If all went according to plan, Maguire would take the office next to Jim’s. The FBI-CIA team would covertly supervise Maguire’s undercover tilt against his own boss, a spy-versus-spy operation in the bosom of CIA headquarters.

No such investigation had ever been run under the roof at Langley.

Investigators knew Jim would interview several experienced CIA officers for the position of deputy branch chief, his top subordinate. But they secretly stacked the deck with Maguire, who had much stronger credentials than the others. Maguire was a founding member of the CTC, a distinction marking him as a “plank holder.” He knew the territory, having worked against Middle East terrorists for years.

Maguire was a good spy, and the kind of guy you’d join for a few rounds of bourbon. But investigators looking to bring Jim to justice were more interested in the skills Maguire had acquired in his former life as a Baltimore City cop. He had worked long hours in the violent corners of Charm City’s neighborhoods, streets later made famous in The Wire. Maguire worked well with prosecutors and logged countless hours on witness stands.

He walked into Room 6E2911 that summer for his interview with Jim. They took seats in Jim’s office, which sat behind a heavy cipher-locked door on the far end of a bullpen of case officers and career trainees. Much was revealed to Maguire when he sneaked a glance at the I-love-me walls flanking his prospective boss’s desk. Everywhere he looked there were framed photos of Jim, certificates, military awards, and other commendations. It was clear the guy was smart, and liked himself. A lot.

“He was a good interviewer,” Maguire recalled. “He was looking for somebody who knew what they were doing, understood the target, somebody he could rely on – somebody he could use.”

Maguire recited his bona fides to Jim, explaining that he was an experienced hand, good at cultivating assets, and was happy to put some of his best Middle East contacts back on the payroll. He said his assets could help Jim’s branch identify and break up cells of Islamic fundamentalists bent on killing Americans or otherwise threatening US security.

Jim wondered how a talented case officer had fallen so far, ending up in HR. So Maguire leveled with him. He’d pissed off Richter, who had cast him into the abyss. Maguire joked about wanting to jump out the window, but HR was on the second floor and he’d only break a bunch of bones. The two veteran spies shared a laugh. Jim knew Richter, and he’d certainly faced his own hassles with agency bureaucracy. But although he appreciated Maguire’s dire predicament, he couldn’t promise him anything.

Maguire walked out thinking he’d nailed the interview. But he knew Jim wasn’t about to hire him until he’d worked the hallway file: the informal vetting of prospective employees in the corridors, back offices, and massive food court on the first floor of the agency’s Original Headquarters Building. There were plenty of people inside who would vouch for Maguire’s native talent as a spy, and a couple who could f**k things up with a mixed review.

Investigators crossed their fingers. Without somebody working for them inside Jim’s locked office, there was no telling how many of the nation’s most closely guarded secrets Jim would purloin and sell to the Russians during daylight duties in the CTC.

Weeks later, Maguire picked up an envelope addressed to him at work. Inside was a directive from the personnel division. The CIA bureaucracy was so big that if you moved from one part of the agency to another, even laterally, someone had to create paperwork to update your salary and benefits. The papers told Maguire to report immediately as deputy branch chief in the CTC under Jim Nicholson. This was his passport out of the Death Star, and a chance to try his spy skills against one of the shrewdest characters he’d ever met.

Not long after Maguire got word he would be working for Jim, Redmond called him for a meeting in one of the agency’s “black rooms,” offices with no descriptors on the door, just cipher locks. There he found himself buttonholed by the veteran counterintelligence supervisor who had headed the long-in-coming apprehension of Rick Ames. Redmond confided in Maguire that if he performed well in his undercover role, he’d serve his country admirably and notch a major milestone in his career.

“If you f**k it up,” he said, “you’re finished. So don’t f**k it up.”