Analysis of espionage cases; Harold James Nicholson (CIA) and Thomas Drake (NSA).

Political Science

Analysis of espionage cases; Harold James Nicholson (CIA) and Thomas Drake (NSA).


Espionage refers to the aspect of using spies or spying in order to obtain information about the plans and activities mostly of a foreign government or a competing company (West, 2015). In this case, this essay will discuss the cases of Harold James Nicholson (CIA) and Thomas Drake (NSA).

Harold James Nicholson

Nicholson served as a captain in the US Army intelligence unit and later joined CIA in October 1980 where he worked as an operations officer whose specialty was in intelligence operations against foreign intelligence services (Henriksen, 2016). However, based on the FBI affidavit, he might have been recruited by the Russian intelligence service (SVR) while in Kuala Lumpur during 1992 to 1994. This might have been the case while he was meeting with a SVR officer during his final four occasions while in Kuala Lumpur. The CIA authorized the meetings which were later reported by Nicholson. One day during his last reported meeting with a SVR officer, on 30th June 1994, financial records indicated that $12,000 was wired into the savings accounts of Nicholson at Selco Credit Union. The FBI, Eugene, was not able to trace a legitimate source of income that this money came from. Later, Nicholson admitted to have provided the SVR with national defense information between 1994 and 1996 during his arrest which included photographic negatives (West, 2015).

The main aspect that triggered the investigation of Nicholson’s espionage for Russia according to the FBI affidavit was based on the fact that he did not pass 3 polygraph examinations that the CIA had administered as part of his routine security update. The FBI later placed Nicholson under surveillance where he was watched as he travelled to various places such as Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand where he was seen in unauthorized meetings with the SVR. Nicholson was assigned a management position by the CIA in the counterterrorism branch CIA headquarters while keeping a close eye on him. The CIA limited the information he accessed on Russian matters and Chechnya which were particularly the primary subjects of interest to his Russian handlers. Additionally, the FBI retrieved a mail sent from Nicholson to his handlers from local public post boxes where he had signed post cards under the alias “Nevil R. Strachey”. One of the post cards had code that had requested for a meeting with the SVR on November 1996 in Switzerland (Kann, 2017).

Nicholson was sentenced to 23 years 7 months imprisonment on 5th June 1997 after being convicted of selling U.S. intelligence to Russia for $300,000. He did not get a death sentence or a life without parole since according to the prosecutors he was fully cooperative after his arrest. Prosecutors had a belief that he had sold the U.S. intelligence officers’ identities stationed in Russia as well as the identities of his trainees at the CIA school. Nicholson told the court that the money he received from the Russians he had intended that it would benefit his children.

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Nicholson was however said to have the highest ranking CIA official ever convicted of spying for a foreign power despite his case having received far less publicity and causing less damage to the U.S. national security. According to him, he was inspired to commit espionage by looking at Aldrich Ames case as opposed to being deterred by it. His son Nathaniel Nicholson was arrested in 2008 since according to the prosecutors Nicholson had used his son in collecting at least $47,000 from Russian officials in Cyprus and Mexico. Nathaniel had met with representatives of the Russian Federation six times between December 2006 and December 2008 (West, 2015).Nicholson was pulled out of prison to plead in court on conspiracy charges alongside his son. Nicholson was sentenced to eight years in prison on 18th January 2011 having been charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering and conspiracy charges by acting as an agent of a foreign government.

Thomas Drake

Thomas A. Drake had worked at the National Security Agency (NSA) for seven years when he tried to alert Congress and superiors on what he saw as illegal activities, waste and mismanagement although his efforts led to nowhere. His leak was discovered although he was cautious by using encrypted email to communicate with a reporter. Drake’s case acted as the biggest leak prosecution since the trail of Daniel Ellsberg and the indictment against him included one charge of obstruction of justice and five counts of violating the Espionage Act as well as four counts of making false statements to the FBI while he was still under investigation (Takefman, 2013). The obstruction of justice was based on Drake deleting Drake’s case caused broad implications on the relationship between the press and the government and did not settle the broader question that overshadowed the proceedings on whether employees of sensitive agencies should be punished for endangering national security.  Prosecutors wanted Drake to plead guilty but he refused since he believed in his innocence based on the charges against him.

The indictment gave details of his communication with the press but was not charged with a direct crime relating to the communications. The U.S government made it a public statement that Thomas Drake’s prosecution was not meant to discourage government employees from reporting problems and that the indictment was brought on merits and nothing else. The government argued that it had no legal obligation of proving that Drake had intended to harm national security since there was no prove based on the espionage act that Drake was charged with. In 2011 June, the government dropped all charges against Drake and did not seek any jail term in return for Drake pleading guilty to a single misdemeanor of misusing the computer system of the agency (Stein,2013). The presiding judge Richard Bennett was very devastated and by expressing how irritated he was with the prosecution and rejected the $50,000 fine that was subjected to Drake by noting that Drake had been devastated financially. Drake was sentenced to one year probation and 240 hours of community service.  


Nicholson and Drake had both leaked the U.S intelligence information to third parties which might have been harmful to the nation as a whole hence they ended up being accused of different crimes. Nicholson was a CIA in the U.S Army intelligence and might have been recruited by the Russian intelligence service to provide national defense information. According to Nicholson, he agreed to have committed the crime with his main motivation being that his children would benefit from the money he received from the Russians. On the other hand, Drake was motivated by the fact that he had seen illegal activities, waste and mismanagement and wanted the issue public thus ended up approaching the media.

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In the case of Nicholson, the information provided to the Russians could have been intended to be used against the U.S, while in the case of Drake; he provided the information to the media so that it could be made public how the NSA was involved in all manner of illegal activities as well as mismanagement and waste. Although the information was eventually leaked, Drake had made sure that he had used encrypted email to communicate with a reporter. However, this was not the case with Nicholson whose intentions were to provide information to the SVR in order to get money that could be used to benefit his children. While Drake engaged in the process of leaking the information alone, Nicholson collaborated with his son Nathaniel who he had used to collect money from Russians.

Nicholson was inspired by Aldrich Ames case who had also committed espionage rather than being discouraged by the case. In the case of Nicholson, there was no major security short coming while in the case of Drake; there was an argument by the government that there was no legal obligation that proved that Drake had intended to harm the national security. In this regard, there was no was no prove based on the espionage act that Drake was charged with. Overall, Drake’s case seemed to be based more on alarming the public on the illegal activities and may not have been based on exposing the national security information to third parties. On the other hand, Nicholson was willing to expose the information to the Russians for his benefits at the expense of the U.S.


Henriksen, T. H. (2016). Eyes, Ears, and Daggers: Special Operations Forces and the Central Intelligence Agency in America’s Evolving Struggle Against Terrorism. Hoover Press.

Kann, D. (2020). How a CIA traitor turned his son into a Russian spy. Retrieved 12 September 2020, from

Stein, J. (2013). The End of National Security Reporting?. IEEE Security & Privacy11(4), 64-68.

Takefman, P. (2013). Curbing overzealous prosecution of the espionage act: Thomas andrews drake and the case for judicial intervention at sentencing. Cardozo L. Rev.35, 897.

West, N. (2015). Historical dictionary of international intelligence. Rowman & Littlefield.

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