Another mole at the CIA? Nicholson case: Highest-ranking official ever accused of selling out to Moscow.

November 20, 1996

CLOBBERED for the second time in two years by revelations that one of its own passed secrets to Russia, the CIA is contending (a) that the latest case was less damaging than the first, (b) that its internal sleuthing was completed sooner and (c) that its cooperation with the FBI was better.

Sorry, it won't wash. Congressional committees that said the intelligence agency was "negligent" in tracking down the treachery of the notorious Aldrich H. Ames now have work to do in assessing the CIA's handling of its newly accused mole, Harold J. Nicholson.

In October 1995, Mr. Nicholson aroused suspicion by his reaction to a routine polygraph test. Nevertheless, for more than a year, he was allowed to continue in sensitive work until his arrest prevented his leaving the country.

One thing Americans deserve to know is how much damaging information was passed to the Russians -- information hobbling the work of his CIA colleagues or compromising foreign agents abroad. Mr. Nicholson is the highest-ranking CIA official ever so accused. Unlike Ames, who collected over $2 million from the Russians, Mr. Nicholson lived modestly. But like Ames, he was reckless, allegedly depositing part of the $120,000 he is accused of collecting right after meeting with Russian handlers.

The United States has predictably protested to Russian authorities who, no doubt, believe their impoverished intelligence agencies are more vulnerable to subornation than their American counterparts. Not only do enemies spy upon enemies; allies spy upon allies, especially in this era of industrial espionage.

But because Russia remains the only power capable of launching a nuclear strike against this country, the Clinton administration should be insistent that Moscow stop actions that plainly threaten U.S. security. At the same time, Congress should ask U.S. intelligence agencies to justify their own operations in light of the changed world scene.

In the current issue of Time magazine, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott argues that both countries need "to get past the stereotypes of the Cold War." For Americans, that means overcoming the notion that "predatory behavior is encoded in Russian genes"; for Russians, it requires dispensing with "conspiracy theories" that lead to trouble-making. Well said, but the Nicholson case and its repercussions have a long way to go.

Pub Date: 11/20/96

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