The Curious Case of Harold James Nicholson

One of the enduring questions that we will probably never know the answer to is: what was the extent of the CIA’s involvement in the 1989 Revolution?

Effectively, there are three theories as to how the FSN formed:

  1. It was a CIA plot.
  2. It was a KGB plot.
  3. Ion Iliescu was the right scumbag at the right place at the right time.

Again, short of a deathbed confession or Wikileaks dump, we’ll never know for sure, but one piece of evidence against the “CIA did it” theory is the curious case of Harold James Nicholson.

Extraordinary Slackness

Ceausescu was executed on December 25, 1989, and by June 1990, Iliescu and his thugs had successfully crushed democracy in Romania forever. And somewhere in that period, a CIA officer named Harold James Nicholson working in Tokyo, Japan was rewarded with a promotion: station chief in Bucharest.

Now, you’d think that if the CIA had a delicate operation that was “handling” Iliescu and the FSN, they wouldn’t bring in a brand new station chief right during the middle of it. Of course, the CIA is run by total idiots, so you never know. But I do think it’s highly unlikely.

Another CIA “genius” at work

Nicholson only stayed in Romania until 1992. He then got demoted and sent to Malaysia where he did what he loved best: getting drunk and talking to Russians (something he’d been doing since 1982). And the public would probably never have heard of him except that he went completely bonkers once he got to Malaysia.

Believe it or not, he read about the arrest of Aldrich Ames in 1994 and decided, “Wow, I’m smarter then he was, so I’m sure I can spy for the Russians and never get caught.” And for a few years, he did get away with it, thanks to “extraordinary slackness” of the CIA’s procedures to prevent such spying from occurring.

Nicholson was arrested in 1996, but that wasn’t the end of the story. This egomaniac just couldn’t let go of “the life” and so he decided to recruit his own son to work for the Russians too. Honestly, it’s a rather sad and tragic story, but it goes to show just how incompetent the CIA nearly always is.

Did this organization really set up and direct the 1989 Revolution in Romania? If so, why did they think that bringing in Nicholson (a guy who spoke zero Romanian) in 1990 was the right thing to do? And was this drunken egomaniac really capable of handling the slippery world of internal Romanian politics?

Sadly, I doubt we’ll ever know for sure. But I do know that there are several external indicators of the United States “flying blind” in the chaotic transition period of the early 1990s when it came to what was going on in Romania, mostly from diplomatic personnel and others scrambling to deal with the unexpected new reality of Eastern European countries pivoting away from Communism.

There was also some frantic communication (on the record) between the USA and the Soviet Union about how to respond to Romania’s revolution and whether United Nations Security Council resolutions were needed/appropriate, leaving me with a strong feeling of “there was no plan in place” in relation to the 1989 Revolution.

My gut feeling is that yes, of course, the CIA had “reached out” to Iliescu and other members of the (future) FSN at some point prior to the Revolution, but I honestly don’t think this was the primary factor that drove the events of December 1989. Of course, I could be wrong!

All we do know for sure is that Harold James Nicholson, the one-time station chief in Romania, is the highest ranking CIA official ever convicted of spying.


5 thoughts on “The Curious Case of Harold James Nicholson

  1. Jim was a friend of mine before he turned. Formerly he was a nice person. I believe he had a wandering eye and was blackmailed by a prostitute working for the Russians. I believe that is how he was turned to the dark side.


  2. My answer goes to 3 (Ion Iliescu was the right scumbag at the right place at the right time).
    Here is why:
    1 is unlikely because, athough CIA had previously some similar successfully actions, they NEVER involved so many contries AT A TIME. Another reason is the simple fact that CIA didn’t need the success in all these contries but to Moscow (because of these countries hated the regime, hence ‘poisoning’ the leader would lead to a total dismantle). Of course, some CIA activity may be existed (as it surely exists now) but nothing that could trigger a revolution.
    2 is unlikely because even in Russia the KGB had loose the control for a while. If this is doesn’t convince enough, then I can invoke a logic argument: nobody, just nobody, will try any “experiment” to increase his power while he already has that power! Those that might say that USSR didn’t had the total power over its “sattelite contries” (which is true) I would respond them that ’89 wasn’t AT ALL a good year for such “experiment” (USSR had already a big problem to fix their make-up after Afghanistan!).
    3 So, yeah, this is all we have in plate.
    But, hey, did you hear about that guy, Rogozin?
    Is he CIA, KGB, or just the right scumbag at the right place at the right time??
    Now… if you know!


  3. As they say Sam, it takes one to know one, hahaha!
    Seriously, I think all major secret services were involved, those that you mention, and a couple of others.
    Whether they work together or not, I don’t know. Most likely they did, at least the Western ones. And looking back, it looks like they did a pretty good job too.


  4. All the conspiracy theories surrounding the 1989 Romanian revolution suffer from not taking the wider context into consideration. In 1989, there were (attempted) revolutions EVERYWHERE, from China to Germany, from Serbia to Estonia.
    When you see everyone from Estonians to Albania overthrowing a dictatorship, why shouldn’t Romanians take to the street either? That neither requires nor explains any conspiracy or control.
    Maybe it was not a coincidence that the protests started in Timisoara, where there were more ethnic Germans, Serbs and Hungarians who listed to the news in other languages and thought “well, if even the orderly Germans have a revolution, we might try as well”.


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