The Spy and Son: The Nicholsons

In the depths of the American Revolution, George Washington is said to have been asked by an inquiring member of the Press what, amongst all that was then churning around him, most kept him up at night. It wasn’t the Continental Congress, who even then seemed challenged when it came to doing anything productive. Nor was it his troops, freezing and starving to death out at Valley Forge. The answer he gave: “Their spies.”

From that time forward, for over 240 years, we have been amassing what could be considered early indicators, data points, insights indicative of trusted insiders, who were considering turning, or who had actually turned, toward the dark side.

Notwithstanding that long history and growing sophistication, we have, until recently, only ever seemed capable of playing catch up - reacting after the fact to their betrayal. Such was the case shortly after the notorious Ames spy case. As a result of that affair, the FBI and CIA had taken “black eyes” because of a determination that, if they’d only cooperated more, Ames would have been caught sooner, and the damage he inflicted, lessened significantly.

Consequently, President Clinton signed an Executive Order that effectively gave operational ownership of the Agency’s counterespionage efforts to the FBI, inserting two of us, FBI agents, within the organizational structure of the CIA, to go after what we knew was yet another spy. 

A new book by reporter Bryan Denson, The Spy’s Son, chronicles those efforts. Under what was considered at best “light cover,” we worked to identify and then capture the highest-ranking CIA officer ever arrested for Espionage - Harold “Jim” Nicholson - an achievement advanced while we were still very much stymied in the world of the “reactive.”

It was from that world of reactive detection that Cylance, with its artificial intelligence and machine learning, finally liberated me, opening my mind to the concept of “proactive prevention.”

What made Jim’s story all the more compelling was the fact that, from prison years later, he recruited his youngest son to pick up where his efforts had ended. Paramount Pictures, until recently, owned the movie rights and had reportedly signed Robert DeNiro to play the spy in their production of the story. Apparently, Cross Creek Pictures, who delivered Black Swan and most recently Hacksaw Ridge, are now running with the production.

Mike Rogers, a former FBI agent himself and the onetime Chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, recently retired from Congress and has subsequently advanced in partnership with CNN the telling of certain stories of espionage which, until now, have been little discussed in public forums.

The series, which he hosts, is called Declassified: Untold Stories of American Spies. The Nicholson espionage story is now scheduled to broadcast on Saturday, September 30th (9pm Eastern, 8pm Central, 7pm Mountain) on CNNHD.

The production team actually interviewed a number of us, including yours truly, each for over eight hours, in preparation for the story. I previewed a rough cut of what they produced and was impressed with the result.

If your calendar is not already committed that evening, we invite you to tune in to a piece of history, which if nothing else provides a backdrop against which to appreciate just what artificial intelligence will bring to many aspects of our emerging world, including that of Counterespionage.