Harold J Nicholson, a veteran with extensive service in the Far East and Eastern Europe since he joined the intelligence agency in 1980, is accused of conspiracy to commit espionage.
In evidence submitted to a federal court arraignment hearing in Alexandria, Virginia, the FBI said it had watched the 46-year old Mr Nicholson photographing top-secret CIA documents about Russia as recently as last Tuesday. He was arrested four days later, on Saturday evening, as he was about to board a foreign flight at Washington's Dulles International Airport.
"Mr Nicholson betrayed his country for money," the federal prosecutor Helen Fahey said yesterday, "He was motivated not by ideology, but by greed. He was arrested as he was leaving to meet his Russian controllers."
Despite the severity of the penalty Nicholson faces, his case does not appear as serious as that of Aldrich Ames, the former head of the Soviet branch of US counter-intelligence.
Ames spied for the Soviet Union, then Russia, for nine years before his arrest in February 1994, having betrayed agents and secret information on a scale to match Kim Philby, and inflicted damage which has shattered CIA morale to this day.
Mr Nicholson seems to have been decently paid for his labours, but nowhere near as well as Mr Ames, who received $2.7 million from the Soviet and Russian intelligence services, with the promise of $2 million more and a retirement dacha near Moscow.
His postings - including a 1990-1992 stint as head of station in Bucharest followed by two years as deputy station chief in Kuala Lumpur - were not as sensitive, nor was there any link between the two cases, US officials said, even though fears were widely voiced at the time of the Ames arrest that he headed a full-scale Russian spy ring within the CIA. According to Louis Freeh, the FBI director, Mr Nicholson had handed over to the Russians information including the identities of CIA officers assigned overseas, endangering both them and their foreign contacts.
But the CIA director John Deutch said his agency knew of no CIA or FBI "assets" who had been killed. "We detected this espionage relatively rapidly," Mr Deutch said.
But similarities do exist, not least in the manner of their unmasking. Like Ames, Mr Nicholson reportedly failed a lie detector test. As in the Ames case, suspicions of investigators were aroused by the size of his bank account, and spending far more lavish than a standard government salary could pay for.Reuse content