TOPICS > Politics

Spy Catching

November 18, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


JOHN DEUTCH, Director, CIA: The arrest makes clear that we must continue to place priority on counterintelligence in the CIA and the rest of the intelligence community. We must remain vigilant to the penetration of U.S. national security organizations by Russia and other hostile intelligence services. We detected this espionage relatively rapidly. For legal reasons, we will not begin a formal damage assessment until after the trial and sentencing.

But we are compiling a list of what he had access to during his career. Thus far, we have no information that any CIA or FBI assets were killed as a result of Nicholson’s spying. We are not yet in the position to determine how many operations he may have compromised, but it seems unlikely that the damage he caused in any way approaches that done by Ames. You should know that he served overseas tours in East Asia and Eastern Europe. Most recently, he had been a section chief at our counter-terrorism center after a tour at the CIA special training center. Let me for a moment explain how this case differs from that of Ames.

There are several key differences. Ames’ behavior gave clear signs of his problems and vulnerabilities; Nicholson’s did not. It took a long time to catch Ames; here, it took a much shorter time. In the Ames case, the cooperation between the CIA and FBI was not great; here, there has been complete cooperation and information exchange from the beginning. In the Ames case, we did not keep Congress informed; in this case, we did. Finally, let me say that there is only one thing worse than catching a spy that has penetrated one’s intelligence service, and that is not catching the spy.

LOUIS FREEH, Director, FBI: By most accounts, relations between the United States and Russia have improved since the end of the Cold War. Nonetheless, the criminal complaint filed against Nicholson charges that he was paid over $100,000 cash to pass critical national security information to the SVRR–that’s the Soviet External Security Service–successfully to the KGB. There’s no greater betrayal of our nation. The defendants is charged with passing highly sensitive information to Russian officials. Among other things, he is alleged to have provided them with the identities of various CIA officers who were to be assigned locations overseas, including Moscow. Passing of such information placed those officers’ lives, as well as the lives of their foreign contacts, in danger.

REPORTER: Dr. Deutch, how aggressive are the Russian services now pursuing this kind of activity in the United States?

JOHN DEUTCH: Well, I think that this case illustrates that the Soviet–the Russian intelligence services remain very active in targeting not only the CIA but other U.S. national security organizations. They remain active at that targeting effort.

REPORTER: Doesn’t this raise questions about the counterintelligence capability at CIA in the sense that he was only uncovered when he failed a polygraph test, not as a result of efforts to track down agents? And do you suspect that there may be other agents still operating within the CIA?

JOHN DEUTCH: Well, there are a lot of questions there. Let me take them one at a time. First of all, I think that, generally speaking, the Central Intelligence Agency is composed of absolutely dedicated and effective intelligence case officers; that this is an anomaly, just as Ames was an anomaly to an otherwise very effective and brave work force. I will remind you that over the last 20 years we’ve had about 70 espionage cases in this country.

So we cannot expect that any single individual case will be the last that we encounter. It all goes to show the importance of a very, very strong counterintelligence effort.

And the story here to me, today, is not that there was another spy–that we have to anticipate given the frailty of human nature–but, rather, that the CIA and the FBI have together built a very formidable counterintelligence capability that captured this person, identified it, uncovered him much more rapidly than existed in the case of Ames, and have brought him to justice. So the story here is that we have a successful post-Ames counterintelligence effort which is in a position to defend the country from any foreign intelligence service that targets our national security apparatus.