Episode 109



When he was arrested in 1996, Jim Nicholson - nicknamed 'Batman' - was the highest-ranking CIA officer to be convicted of espionage for the Russian Federation. Ten years later, he did it again. Join Vanessa Kirby for the first-ever True Spies duology - a tale of spycraft, treachery, and a toxic father-son relationship. In Part 1, veteran CIA case officer John Maguire tells the story of his strangest mission, an operation on American soil to bring down one of his own colleagues. Could you befriend a traitor?
Read the transcript →

True Spies, Episode 109 - The Spy's Son, Part 1: Bringing Down Batman

Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position? I’m Vanessa Kirby, and this is True Spies, The Spy's Son, Part 1: Bringing Down Batman.

JOHN MAGUIRE: I think he started spying when he was posted in South Asia.

NARRATOR: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. 1994. A humid day in June. Cool by local standards. But the tall American sweats as he navigates the bustle of the city. It’s not just the weather. He’s nervous, too. But only in that primeval, gnawing way that no amount of training can ever truly suppress. Outwardly, he projects supreme confidence. After all, he is Harold James Nicholson, CIA. He’s a superhero.

JOHN MAGUIRE: His call sign was Batman on the radio, everybody has their assigned call signs that you keep for your whole career, but he was a successful officer and he had done good work in the field and would be categorized then as a guy that was on the fast track.

NARRATOR: Nicholson - Jim, to his friends - is en route to a meeting with the local head of the SVR; Russia’s foreign intelligence service. But this is business as usual. Nothing to see here. In the wake of the Soviet collapse, the CIA and SVR have struck an intelligence-sharing agreement, focused on tackling Islamic terrorism. Nicholson enters the Russian Embassy in the spirit of collaboration. Unfortunately for his paymasters in Virginia, the American spy is feeling especially generous. In fact, the offer he makes is irresistible in its simplicity. Jim Nicholson will sell American secrets to the Russians.

JOHN MAGUIRE: And when you make the decision to volunteer and walk into an embassy, you've crossed the Rubicon. There's no coming back. 

NARRATOR: As far as we know, he is the highest-ranking CIA officer in the Agency’s history ever to turn traitor, selling secrets between 1994 and 1996. Jim Nicholson betrayed his country, his family, and his Agency, not once - but twice. His spectacular fall from grace earned him more than 20 years in federal prison. It’s time to meet the man who worked around the clock to put Nicholson where he belongs.

JOHN MAGUIRE: My name is John Maguire. I'm a retired case officer from the CIA. I spent most of my career overseas and at headquarters and got involved in the Nicholson case as a directed assignment. 

NARRATOR: After being plucked from the ranks of the Baltimore police force, John had gone on to serve with the CIA as a case officer and paramilitary in a variety of interesting, and often dangerous locations around the world.

JOHN MAGUIRE: My career would be best described as nontraditional. It just sort of perked along, and I took jobs that were interesting. I took jobs where people said: “Man, you're nuts to take that. That's a dead-end post, you know?” And then nine months after you get there, it's the front and center issue on the president's desk. It's just a wild card. You can't bet on it based on anything that you know.

NARRATOR: But in the mid-1990s, John’s exciting career trajectory hit a brick wall.

JOHN MAGUIRE: Well, I was assigned in London. I put in my request. I was looking for another tour that would have been a fourth back-to-back tour. So I knew where I wanted to go. I was going to be a chief somewhere, a chief of station. And I had applied for jobs that I thought fit well and would work.

NARRATOR: He was met with rejection after rejection. The one overseas tour he was offered - a posting in Pakistan - he couldn’t take.

JOHN MAGUIRE: When we first left to go overseas my wife is a nurse, and she said, look, we can live anywhere on the planet except Pakistan and India. I don't want to take the kids there when they're this young for the risk of them catching something before their immune systems are ready to battle off the power germs that you're going to find in places like those two countries. 

NARRATOR: John’s decision to reject the posting prompted a slapdown from his superiors.

JOHN MAGUIRE: So when I didn't get my assignment, I ended up getting an assignment that said: “You have to come back to Washington. So then I was assigned to the Human Resource Division, which - for a field case officer with back-to-back overseas tours that were successful - was like having someone stick a sharp needle in your eye. Like, what in the h*** am I going to do here? Because you're on the second floor of headquarters, which is where case officers go to die, in H.R. The joke at the time was: 'They put it on the second floor because it's not high enough if you jump out the window to try and kill yourself, that you'll die.'

NARRATOR: Unbeknownst to John, there was a higher purpose to his abandonment in the doldrums of H.R. And it all led back to Jim Nicholson. Shortly after his fateful rendezvous with the SVR head in Kuala Lumpur, Nicholson had also been reassigned. He would be taking a temporary post as an instructor at the Farm, the CIA’s secretive training facility in Virginia. You might think that trading the tropics for a classroom on the Eastern Seaboard sounds like a downgrade. And if you’re working on a tan, then yes, fair enough. However, if you’re in the business of selling secrets, then there’s no better place to be.

JOHN MAGUIRE: When he came to the Farm, he had access to the entire new officer corps. You see them all. And you see them in six-month blocks when they're in a pressurized environment and you're able to observe their behaviors. You can pick the officers out of the pack easily, the ones that have a natural affinity to do the job and are comfortable with it, and others that don't. But when you're sending targeting information and personal vulnerability information issued to an enemy country, those officers at some point are going to stumble into the Russian system. And then there's already going to be a summary file on what kind of people they are.

NARRATOR: By selling information on trainee spies to the Russians, Jim Nicholson had compromised a generation of officers before they’d even set foot in the field. And he didn’t stop there. With his access to CIA HQ, he was able to rustle up more juicy nuggets of intel about US foreign policy, and the Agency’s internal affairs. One vein of information related to the investigation against Aldrich Ames, the last Russian mole to be caught spying on the CIA. He’d been arrested in 1993, only a year before Nicholson broke bad. 

JOHN MAGUIRE: The Ames case was like a body blow to a boxer, it knocked the wind out of everybody in the CIA. No one really could just manage the thought of having someone at that level working in the building, working directly for the Russians. 

NARRATOR: Determined to avoid another humiliation on this scale, the Agency had enlisted a seasoned FBI counterintelligence team to make the CIA an uncomfortable place for any prospective traitors. Clearly, the Agency could not be trusted to clean its own house.

JOHN MAGUIRE: There were multiple espionage case investigations underway at the same time. Nicholson was just one of them. 

NARRATOR: Sure enough, in 1995, a tip from a Russian asset alerted the FBI to another mole within the Agency. No name was forthcoming - but the source did provide a profile. Jim Nicholson fit that profile. After failing a polygraph test which he believed to be a routine security update, he was put under surveillance. Another meeting with the Russians, this time in Singapore, confirmed the FBI’s suspicions. But to bring Nicholson to justice, they needed hard, legally actionable evidence, collected on US soil which is where John comes in.

JOHN MAGUIRE: The Nicholson case was a unique effort to try and compress the timeline and the loss of material and national security information by accelerating the timeline of an espionage investigation. The FBI and the Agency decided to do something completely different, which was to try and get a trained, experienced case officer next to the spy and have someone who understands the espionage craft working right next to the spy so that behaviors and activities that might signal that something of significance is coming up - as far as the planning goes - would be detected early and allow to leverage resources onto the activity that we might that we expect to occur so that it can be documented and used faster. 

NARRATOR: In short, the FBI wanted to put a CIA officer at Nicholson’s right hand - a spy’s spy. John Maguire, they decided, was just the man for the job. Of course, John didn’t know this - he didn’t need to, yet. In fact, he believed that his new position in the Human Resources department constituted divine justice, sent down by a capricious God as punishment for his rejection of the Pakistan posting. But the intelligence community works in mysterious ways. In reality, John had been placed exactly where he needed to be.

JOHN MAGUIRE: So I think they knew I would say no, and that was all part of my personnel record that I had refused the assignment. So if Nicholson went back and looked, he could see that I had been deposited at headquarters against my will. So it's not like something I did on purpose, right? And I didn't screw up in the field. I just said ‘no’ to the boss. And then I got sent to H.R., which I assumed was, 'Well, now I know I really pissed him off.’

NARRATOR: Fortunately for John, things were about to get considerably more exciting.

JOHN MAGUIRE: So I was sitting there at my desk contemplating my next two years' sentence and the phone rang and it was Anna. Just call her Anna. And she said: “I need you to come up here right now, come to me, come up the stairs, don't use the elevator, and don't talk to anybody. Come up to me now.” 

NARRATOR: ‘Anna’, as we’re calling her here, was a secretary.

JOHN MAGUIRE: They're called secretaries, but they're the front office managers. And any officer knows that the front office secretaries are the ones that can help you shine or bury you in manure if you're a jerk. So everybody as young officers knows those secretaries because they go up there and they stay. 

NARRATOR: John knew instinctively that Anna was not to be second-guessed.

JOHN MAGUIRE: I said: “Yes, ma'am.” And I hung up the phone and ran up to the sixth floor from the second floor. So she said to me: “Go into Steve's office.” And [she] just pushed me in there and shut the door behind me. 

NARRATOR: That’s Steve Richter - the same boss who had assigned John to H.R in the first place. Was he about to compound the humiliation with a dressing-down in person?

JOHN MAGUIRE: And I went into Steve Richter's office and was standing in front of him, and there's a couch in there. And I noticed there was a man on the couch that I had never seen before. So I thought it odd because he's going to chew me out for something. He's not going to scold me in front of somebody I don't know. So he says to me, not: ‘Hello, how are you?’ There are no pleasantries and says - “I have an assignment that you've been selected for. I can't tell you what it is. You have to say yes or no right now without knowing what it is. And if you say no, you just go back downstairs and never say anything about this discussion.” And then, there was just dead silence. He said nothing else. And I looked at him and then I looked at the guy on the sofa and I thought: “Well, you know, nothing ventured. Nothing gained.” I said: “Can I ask a question?” He said: "You can ask a question. Yes, go ahead." So I said: "Who's this guy?" 

NARRATOR: The man on the sofa rose to his feet.

JOHN MAGUIRE: He stood up and stuck his hand out and, laughing, said: “My name is Ed Curran. I'm the highest-ranking FBI agent assigned to the CIA and this is an assignment you should take.” 

NARRATOR: For John, this is a gamble. But gambling is what he does. Where other officers shoot for the cocktail circuits of Paris or Milan, John flies into warzones. And honestly, at this point, anything beats H.R.

JOHN MAGUIRE: I just look back and I said to Richter, I kind of shrugged and said, “F*** it, I'm in. I'll take it, whatever it is if I can leave H.R.” Richter said: “Go back downstairs and he'll give you instructions.” And then Curran said: “Go back down the steps, go to the front door. There are two agents there. They'll cred you, put you in a car and go with them. Don't tell anybody what you're doing. Just leave the building right now.” 

NARRATOR: John turned on his heel and left Richter’s office, his heart pounding. 

JOHN MAGUIRE: I said: “Okay.” And I ran down the stairs and as I walked by Anna just looked at me, smiled, and winked at me. And I was off and running. And I went downstairs. Sure enough, there were two guys in suits that look like Bureau guys in the doorway, and there was a ‘bu-car’ out front. And they credded me, put me in the car and off we went to a remote location in Northern Virginia and then they explained what was going on. We were off to the races from that day.

NARRATOR: The FBI agents rushed John to a safe house where he underwent his own polygraph. Most of the questions focused on Russia - an area where John had little experience. This wasn’t about him. This was counterintelligence.

JOHN MAGUIRE: So once I figured out that, okay, this is CI, then I got briefed on what he was and what was going on, and the case agent told me: “Welcome aboard. We have another Ames.”

NARRATOR: Meanwhile, Jim Nicholson had moved into a cushy new position as a branch chief at the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, or CTC, focusing on Sunni insurgents in denied areas. Finally, a role befitting his considerable talents, with a commensurate bump in pay but every chief needs a second-in-command. While sifting through applications for the role of deputy branch chief, one resumé stood out to Nicholson.

JOHN MAGUIRE: And then, evidently, Nicholson picked my name. I got an interview with him, and I think I fit the bill of what he was looking for. He didn't know me. I had a really good hallway file. I had a lot of experience with terrorism. I was one of the plank holders when they started CTC in 1985. And it just seemed like a good fit because he was an Asian guy and he needed a Near Eastern guy who knew Arab Islamic stuff, and I fit that bill. 

NARRATOR: Of course, the FBI and CIA had worked to stack the deck in John’s favor. As a case officer with years of counterterrorism experience in the Near East, the CTC job was practically his for the taking. Fortunately, Nicholson thought so too. John was hired.

JOHN MAGUIRE: And then I got assigned internally and moved up to the CTC and went to work right next to him. 

NARRATOR: So began a unique operation - an FBI investigation, using CIA resources to bring down one of the Agency’s own. From that moment on, John was Jim Nicholson’s shadow. But for John, despite his extensive experience in the field, this was a whole new ballgame.

JOHN MAGUIRE: The thing that I worried about the most was really not messing it up, because if you're not on your game... Normally overseas, you prep yourself for a clandestine act when you leave the embassy or your house or something, and you have a window of time where you're at 100 percent paying attention to doing everything, and then you come back to a safe space. When this is every day, all day, in an informal and unstructured environment, in an office. [And I want to make sure] that I didn't make any tradecraft mistakes that would give him any cause to think I was paying attention to what he was doing. 

NARRATOR: A meeting with the CIA’s deputy director of counterintelligence made the stakes clear:

JOHN MAGUIRE: He said: “This is an extremely important task and mission for you. If you successfully do this, you'll have accomplished something that really matters. And you'll get your pick of assignments.” And he said, “If you f*** this up, you're finished.”

NARRATOR: From the CTC office, John began logging and reporting Jim’s every move. He was, effectively, an undercover agent - a skillset more common within the ranks of the FBI than in the CIA. In fact, you might be wondering - why does the FBI investigation need John? Why not keep the investigation in-house?

JOHN MAGUIRE: The key thing about trying to shoehorn someone like me into the system is to detect when something like that is actually happening. You have to catch something like that at the launch point in order to try and decipher what it means. The FBI job is tailored to do criminal investigations and prosecutions of violations of federal law. The Agency is how to conduct espionage in an enemy country. 

NARRATOR: On their own, the FBI could run surveillance, bug calls, and plant cameras. But Nicholson was no fool - to really understand his sleight of hand, you’d need to see the tricks up close. To make a truly ironclad case against Nicholson, the FBI needed to catch him in the act of communicating with the Russians. And that’s where John’s proximity to the mole, along with his knowledge of covert communication techniques, was essential. But to gather that evidence, John would need to get cozy with Nicholson - personally, as well as professionally. 

JOHN MAGUIRE: I tried to befriend him, and it worked, I think. Secretly I wanted to stab him in the neck because I knew what he was doing. But I drank beer with him. We drove around and did things after. He ate out a lot. He liked to go downtown and into restaurants, not eat in the cafeteria. So there was some personal casual time and I got to know him reasonably well.

NARRATOR: John soon learned that when it came to harvesting information, Nicholson was determined, insatiable, and resolutely amoral.

JOHN MAGUIRE: He was always on the make. He worked his way through the workforce romantically for the female officer corps. And there were a lot of women in the CIA and a lot of people in CTC. So he had a huge pool of people - and people knew him because he was a good-looking guy, and a single guy, a divorced dad.

NARRATOR: Just as he had done at the Farm, Nicholson put his love of money before the careers of his colleagues. Any person unlucky enough to be caught in a romantic entanglement with the mole was likely to be compromised.

JOHN MAGUIRE: And when he was talking to people, I looked at it when I heard him as: “God, he's just eliciting more and more data about their personal lives.” And people look at that like: “Oh, my boss is interested in me, and it's not a romantic thing.” But then he would exploit those personal relationships, and then he was careful and skilled and I just thought [it] was such a mercenary thing to do. 

NARRATOR: Could you stand by and watch as a traitor abused the trust of your colleagues? John didn’t have a choice. It’s a testament to his skill that he was able to mask his disgust. 

JOHN MAGUIRE: Some people, there's a difference between just narcissism and malignant narcissism. And then somebody who's a sociopath in certain respects, but then a toxic evil when it's doing things to hurt people. He didn't have that moral compass that enabled him to measure that.

NARRATOR: In time, Nicholson began to trust John - or at least, trust that he wasn’t a threat to his earnings. And to the FBI, that trust was priceless. It made him careless.

JOHN MAGUIRE: It was during the day. We had gone out to lunch, and he liked Asian food, and Northern Virginia has some really good Asian restaurants, Vietnamese restaurants, and Thai restaurants. And then we were heading back to the building and then we took a turn and started going in another direction. And I just mentioned, over there in the other seat: “You lost?” You know, just joking around with him. He goes: “No, no. I collect stamps and this is when the new stamps arrive this week at different places and there's a post office out here that sells international stamps, international mailing stamps, and postcard stamps.”

NARRATOR: Remember, John’s no FBI agent. He knows the ins and outs of covert communication. He’s done it in some of the world’s most dangerous locations. Spies in the field often used unique stamps to signal a rendezvous with their handlers. The Bureau would need to hear about this.

JOHN MAGUIRE: And then I realized that that's a clear indicator. He's going to mail something and the stamp means something. So it's kind of a clue that he's going to get something that he's going to use to communicate with the Russians. So when he went in there, I just sat in the car, but when he came back. I had a way of triggering a meeting, a clandestine meeting at different places on the compound with the Bureau. So I could disappear from the office and say: “I'm going somewhere,” and then go to a part of the building where there was no chance I would run into anybody from CTC or him. We had a prearranged location for triggering meetings. So I picked the meeting place, took off, ran down there, and then told the agent who was on duty that day in the building with me. I said: “This is what he just did. This is what this means, and you need to put the resource pool out there tonight to catch it because he's going to do something tonight. He's not going to sit on this. He's going to send something and he's going to mail it.” And they were just like: “Okay.” And just on that request from me, the amount of resources that were thrown at him that night... I was stunned by what they were able to pull together so fast. 

NARRATOR: Later that night, Jim Nicholson’s Chevy crawled out into the darkness. He was alone, save for a postcard bearing a unique stamp. That, and a fleet of FBI surveillance vehicles. You see, an experienced officer like Nicholson always checks for a tail. But when you bring mass surveillance into play, all those tails start to look like traffic.

JOHN MAGUIRE: It was way in the middle of the night. His kids were asleep. He was out doing [it] somewhere where there was nobody around. He ran a surveillance run to see if he had surveillance. He did and did not see it, and did a mailing. And then the mail was recovered, processed, and put back in. And by the time the sun came up, there was no evidence that anything had happened. The postcard left on schedule with the pick-up from that box. When the mailman came to get the box, it was in there and they had everything that they needed from that.

NARRATOR: The postcard invited its recipient to join Nicholson for a ‘ski holiday’ on the 23rd to 24th of November - a month away. The Agency knew that Nicholson was due to be in Italy on official business, but had made plans to take a private vacation during the course of the journey, a relaxing sojourn to Switzerland. Now, it was up to John to provide the essential material evidence that would compound Nicholson’s guilt in a court of law. DNA, for example - proof that might connect the mole to any stolen documents or illicit communiqués that the Bureau might discover.

JOHN MAGUIRE: Things that are personal connections, but you gotta be able to get a hold of it. And he drank coffee all the time and I went in there. He had coffee with him, so I just took his cup when I left, the cup from the cafeteria.

NARRATOR: The FBI had searched Nicholson’s car. A laptop and diskette found in the vehicle held a trove of damning evidence. Analysis suggested that several classified documents had been passed on to the Russians already, including one which revealed the identity of the Agency’s Moscow chief of station, as well as several other members of staff. Another exposed the names of sources who fed the Agency with information about the state of Russia’s military and financial institutions. These revelations represented a serious blow to US intelligence-gathering inside Russia and risked the freedom, and the lives, of Russian assets who worked with the Moscow station. For the Bureau, this was a strong, if disturbing, start. But it still wasn’t enough. They also needed access to Nicholson’s house - the Batcave itself.

JOHN MAGUIRE: I had to get his keys from him so I could take the keys and be able to make a key. And I left my wallet in his car after one of our beer-drinking lunches. It was on the floor of his car and then about halfway through the afternoon, I said: “I don't have my wallet, so the only thing I can think of is it's on the floor of your car.” And he just threw his keys to me and said: “You know where I parked?” He was [in] the lots close to one side of the building. I just went out to his car, got my wallet off the floor, and had his keys in my hand. 

NARRATOR: A key impression kit is an essential bit of gear for the aspiring burglar. Now, the Bureau had easy access to Nicholson’s home where they found a laptop and document scanner. The laptop, which had also been searched when the FBI had turned over Jim’s car, contained top-secret reports on the CIA’s intelligence-gathering operations inside Russia - information that could have led to arrests, or even executions.

JOHN MAGUIRE: So it was not hard, but he was at ease. That was the indication by then, he was at ease with me. 

NARRATOR: The evidence against Nicholson was mounting. John’s evidence-gathering had shaved months off the investigation. But his weren’t the only eyes on the mole. A pinhole camera, almost invisible, had been mounted above Nicholson’s desk in his private office at CIA HQ. Through it, the FBI could watch his every move in secret. And it made for interesting viewing.

JOHN MAGUIRE: It's just the ability to watch him, not audio-wise, but just watch what he was doing in his office because it's really important to try and understand what he's taking from the system. Maybe not everything is printed out. If you print something, there's a record of printing in the building. Everybody has that issue, but if you're doing something with a camera, you're taking pictures of your screen. If you're looking at stuff online and you take pictures of the screen, then you have a photo issue, but you don't have anything that's detectable unless you're caught with that.

NARRATOR: Nicholson wasn’t afraid to use his authority to make life easier for himself. And, like his namesake in Gotham City, he had a reputation as a gadget-lover. He contacted the Office of Technical Services - the CIA’s Q-branch, if you like - and asked for a hi-res camera hidden in a briefcase. John watched the video feed as Nicholson sat on the floor of his office, snapping document after document on the briefcase camera. It made his blood boil.

JOHN MAGUIRE: When you take the oath, you raise your hand in front of the flag and you swear your allegiance to the Constitution, the United States, to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution from all enemies, foreign and domestic. And to be able to watch somebody that you're working with every single day doing something that, you know, he's taking that information, he's going to give it to the Russians, and some of those people could easily be killed. 

NARRATOR: When a CIA officer’s cover is blown in Russia, they can expect an undignified ejection from the country. But for the local sources and assets that those officers run, the consequences can be deadly.

JOHN MAGUIRE: You look at that and you think: “I don't understand how you can do that because all of us that grew up like this, feeling that we won life's lottery by being born here.” I mean, there's a reason that people will float here on inner tubes to make it and risk dying. Life in America is pretty good, and when you are willing to throw everything away and wreck your family by what you're doing for money, it's just a cold reality and watching him actually do it and prepare himself to load up classified stuff to take a load of it, to give to the Russians... it just pissed me off.

NARRATOR: The foundations of the FBI’s case against Nicholson were solid. But there was one final piece of the puzzle to slot in before an arrest could be made.

JOHN MAGUIRE: That's the benchmark piece that you need at the end, is the deliberate effort to leave America and make a meeting that you've already pre-scheduled. So they're not going to risk letting him leave the building, letting him leave America. So you have that. That's the final step. So he scheduled his trip - all that went through according to plan. And then they realized at that point: “We've got enough.” The US attorney was satisfied. It's like: “Okay, we'll pick them off when he's getting ready to get on the plane.”

NARRATOR: Why wait? Why not grab Nicholson before he even makes it to the airport? We’ll let John take the reins on this one.

JOHN MAGUIRE: He's gone through security. We know he's not armed. That's one of the big things at the airport. You know he doesn't have a gun, so you're not going to have a gunfight at the airport. It's hard to run away when you're walking on the tarmac of the airplane out to the commuter flight to go to JFK because you're in an enclosed environment or the airfield. There's no way to explain the fact that he has classified material on him that he's not allowed to have outside of the building, so he's got provable evidentiary material on his body and he is in an area that we can control - we being the US investigative system.

NARRATOR: On the 16th of November, 1996, Jim Nicholson arrived at Dulles International Airport, Washington DC. His children, Jeremi, Star, and 12-year-old Nathan, hugged their father goodbye. As far as anybody knew, he was heading off for a short business trip. Nothing unusual. Nicholson made unhurried progress through airport security, meeting with two CIA colleagues who were due to travel with him. He gave no outward indication that the $50,000 worth of classified documents, stored as film in his camera bag, gave him any cause for concern. Meanwhile, FBI agents disguised as regular passengers kept eyes on the mole. As he strode out onto the tarmac to join his fellow passengers, they finally made their move.

JOHN MAGUIRE: And he slipped out of line quietly. There was no evidence that Jim knew anything was coming. He looked shocked at what had happened. And I was able to go with the FBI guys. They let me come with them so I could watch from a window. And I watched him. I watched his life evaporate in front of his eyes right there on the tarmac when he got the handcuffs on him and he’s bent over the trunk of the car, like any other perp who just got locked up for something. And I could see the look on his face. He realized: “I didn't see this coming. Maybe I'm not as sharp as I thought.”

NARRATOR: If Nicholson was surprised, then the two unwitting CIA officers who accompanied him were gobsmacked.

JOHN MAGUIRE: And both of those officers were like: “Holy s***. What the hell is going on?” So they leave. They don't go on the trip. And one of them, I think, asked at the time: “Hey, we're supposed to go overseas.” It's like: “Well, the trip’s canceled. Buddy, you're coming with us.” So I got to talk to them briefly and I said: “You're just going to have to roll with this. Jim's been arrested for espionage. And everybody that works for him is going to have a really difficult day because everybody is going to go through the wringer, being questioned and polygraphed.” And those two were gone, and they were the first two to get it. 

NARRATOR: The operation, some 10 months in the making, was finally at a close. Weeks of 14-hour days and restless nights had finally paid off for John. But don’t break out the bubbles just yet. The aftermath of a betrayal on this scale is never pretty.

JOHN MAGUIRE: Then when I got back to the building, I told everybody in the office: “This is what's just happened. This is what's going to happen now.” The Bureau had already gone into the office before I got back and then took everything out of Jim's office, and they were all just stunned. There were a lot of tears and a lot of people really upset because here's another Ames thing, another major spy caught, and it spread through the CTC reasonably fast. The first thing that happened to me? I got yelled at by a senior boss like: "Well, why didn't you tell me what you were doing?" And said: "I wasn't supposed to tell you." "But I'm your boss." I said: "Look, if you want to bitch about it, today's not the day." And I never saw that guy again.

NARRATOR: John wouldn’t see Jim Nicholson again until his sentencing the following summer.

JOHN MAGUIRE: And the only time I ever saw him again was at his allocution hearing, where he had to stand in front of the judge and read allocution on what he did, and he accepted responsibility. I was sitting. There was no one else in the courtroom except FBI agents and the US attorney. And when he turned around as he was getting ready to leave, he finished, he just looked back at the people that were sitting in the back and he saw me in there. There were no other Agency people in there, and you could see the look on his face when I looked at him and locked eyes with him. And that's when I knew for sure he had no clue. He did not know this is what happened to him. He just was. He missed it all. And he knew it when he walked out of the courtroom. They stole my lunch money, man, and I'm going to jail for 24 years. 

NARRATOR: Jim Nicholson was sentenced to serve a 23-year term at [FCI] Sheridan prison, Oregon - a medium-security facility, close to where his family now resided. But that’s not where he’s imprisoned today. 

ETHAN KNIGHT: It was clear that this was someone who was a master manipulator, not unlike many folks in that position, but the reality was those skills that he had learned and deployed at one time on behalf of the United States government, he'd both turned against the government and his family.

NARRATOR: Today, the master manipulator keeps company with the likes of El Chapo, Robert Hanssen, and the Boston Marathon bomber in a maximum-security prison in Colorado. Remember that touching scene between Jim and his three children at Dulles International? The last time he saw them as a free man? More than a decade later, one of those children would find themselves at the heart of a spy scandal that would rock the world of intelligence - and their family - to its core. A father-son psychodrama that played out all around the world, and from within the confines of a prison cell.

ETHAN KNIGHT: We wanted folks to know what was unique about this case and what really were the risks we thought the public faced based on Jim Nicholson's continued deception and now the involvement of his son. 

NARRATOR: I’m Vanessa Kirby. Join us next week on True Spies.

Guest Bio

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

Ethan Knight of the US Attorney’s Office for the District of Oregon prosecuted the Nicholson case.

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