Washington, 4 March 1997 (RFE/RL) - Two brief court appearances in the past four days have enabled U.S. authorities to close the books on two U.S. government intelligence agents caught spying for Moscow.
On Monday, a former senior Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer, Harold Nicholson, declared that he was guilty of selling classified intelligence information to the Russians in exchange for payments totalling more than $180,000.
"I plead guilty, your honor," Nicholson told a U.S. district court judge. He admitted to a single charge that he passed documents, photo negatives and information about national defense of the United States to the Russians. The entire proceeding was over in 14 minutes, and Nicholson was returned to a jail cell outside Washington.
Last Friday, a former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) counter-intelligence officer also admitted to espionage charges. The accused in this case, Earl Edwin Pitts, acknowledged that he spied first for the former Soviet Union, starting in 1987 and continued espionage for Russia through 1992.
Authorities say the two cases are not connected. The security breaches were described as the worst since another former CIA agent, Aldrich Ames, was caught spying for Russia in 1994. He is serving a life sentence in prison.
Both Nicholson and Pitts could be sentenced to life prison terms, although legal experts say the strategy behind guilty pleas is a hope for leniency by the court. The two men also agreed to cooperate with investigators and tell them everything they did and how they did it.
U.S. authorities say Nicholson gave the Russians the identities of agency recruits he had been working with from 1994 to 1996. CIA officials have expressed concern that information could seriously undermine the effectiveness of, and possibly endanger, those new employees in overseas assignments. Nicholson's last assignment was as an instructor at the CIA training academy outside Washington.
He was arrested in November as he prepared to leave for Switzerland with what the government says was information for Russian agents. He was charged with three counts of espionage. However, the government agreed to drop two charges in exchange for a guilty plea.
Pitts was arrested in December after FBI agents posing as Russian spies and aided by a former Russian official of the United Nations, lured him into resuming his spying activities. The FBI is the government's law enforcement agency. Pitts had been assigned the task of keeping track of Soviet spies in the United States.
Pitts pleaded guilty to conspiring and attempting to commit espionage. He admitted in court that the Russians paid him more than $229,000 for the information he supplied them. Ten other counts against him were dropped.