After Warsaw, Sellers accepted an assignment to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. Ethiopia in 1981 was the “Cuba of Africa” – a communist state ruled by strongman Mengistu Haile Merriam who had deposed, and was reported to have personally executed, Emperor Haile Selassie.
Michael arrived in Addis Ababa in February 1981 to find Communist troops at every major intersection. Fighting among the different factions of the communist leadership had resulted in purges and dead bodies lying in city streets was a frequent sight in the morning. Hundreds of Soviet and East German Security Service officers worked in tandem with the Ethiopian secret police to control the local population, all in furtherance of maintaining Mengistu’s viselike grip on power. The CIA Station in Addis Ababa was under intense scrutiny at all times by the East German and Ethiopian Security apparatus.
Sellers’ work involved travel throughout the country, and in particular to the strife-torn Ogaden on the border between Ethiopia and Somalia, and separatist Eritrea in the north. For two years he traveled in a Land Rover without security to the remote hinterlands of Ethiopia, collecting intelligence that was disseminated to U.S. policymakers. He twice contracted severe bacillary dysentery during provincial trips and was evacuated to the U.S., losing 30-40 pounds of weight but each time returning to duty in Ethiopia within 2 or 3 weeks of contracting the illness. During Sellers second year in Ethiopia, President Ronald Reagan issued an Executive Order directing the CIA to undertake covert action to bring about “regime change.” The finding directed the CIA to support a covert group inside Ethiopia who was committed to bringing down Mengistu.
Sellers was chosen to handle in-country clandestine contact with the insurrectionists. Relying on elaborate, technically assisted disguise scenarios, he met with the leadership of the group–mostly former Haile Selassie cabinet level officials — at a safe house in a seedy section of Addis Ababa. Security concerns were paramount, and arriving at the safehouse, Michael was shown an excavated bunker under a wardrobe in the back of the house which had been prepared for him to hide in, should Ethiopian security arrive. Michael met with these men on a bi-weekly basis for the next six months. He debriefed the insurrectionists, guided them in their efforts, provided money and materials, and after each meeting dispatched a progress report to Langley. This continued until February 1983, when Michael’s tour of duty ended and he returned to Washington.
A tragic epilogue to Sellers service in Ethiopia occurred when, eight months after he departed, the CIA officer who replaced him as the handler of the insurgent group was captured by Ethiopian and East German security while meeting with the group in the same safehouse where Michael had operated. The officer, Tim Wells, was held captive for six weeks, tortured, and forced to confess the identities of agents, including the leadership of the insurgent group — but also other, unrelated Ethiopians whom Sellers had recruited and turned over to Wells. Sellers’ agents, as well as the leaders of the insurgent group, were summarily executed. Wells left the CIA in the immediate aftermath of this disaster. The following account of Wells’ experience is taken from LEGACY OF ASHES, by Tim Weiner:
Timothy Wells, a thirty-four-year-old combat-wounded Vietnam veteran, had been sent to Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, in 1983. The nation was controlled by Marxist dictator haile Mengistu, whose palace guard, provided by Moscow, was led by East German intelligence officers. Wells was on his second tour of duty with the ICA. His orders were to create a political uprising. “There was a presidential finding signed by Ronald Reagan,” Wells said. “It was a mandate. I was there to help overthrow the goddamn government.”
Ten years before, Wells had been a marine guard at the American embassy in Khartoum when Palestinian gunmen took the American ambassador and the departing charge d’affaires hostage at a reception. President Nixon made a no-concessions statement off the top of his head. The PLO chairman Yassir Arafat answered with a go-ahead to kill the Americans. The harrowing experience made Wells change his life. He returned to the United States, went back to college, and joined the CIA. He underwent eighteen months of training for the clandestine service and arrived in Ethiopia after a two year tour in Uganda. He was posted under State Department cover as a commercial officer. The United States had little commerce with Ethiopia at the time. Mengistu had just made the White House’s most-wanted list.
Under President Carter, the CIA had a minuscule cover-action project of financial support for an exile group calle the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Alliance. Under President Reagan, the program became a no-holds-barred multi-million-dollar affair. Wells inherited from his predecessor [Sellers] a network of Ethiopian intellectuals, professors, and businesspeople that he suspected had been penetrated by Mengistu’s security forces. His mission was to keep them supplied with money and propaganda written by an exiled former Ethiopian minister of defense who worked with the agency. Posters, pamphlets, and bumper stickers arrived in diplomatic pouches at the embassy, where CIA personnel outnumbered State Department officials two to one.
Wells knew that he was being tailed. yet he persisted. “I’m surprised it took them as lon as they did to get me,” he said.
On December 20, 1983, Mengistu’s thugs burst inon a meeting Wells was holding in an upper-middle-class neighborhood and arrested three leaders of the opposition — a seventy-eight year old aide to the late emperor Haile Selassie; a fifty-year-old businessman; and his niece, a biologist. Wells hid for two days and two nights in a closet where the propaganda was kept. Then Mengistu’s palace guards found him. They hogtied Wells, brought the three dissidents back to the house, and began to torture them. Wells heard their screams and confessed that he was a CIA officer. His captors blindfolded him, tossed him in a car, and drove him away. On Christmas Eve, they took him to a safe house south of the city, in a place called Nazret. He spent the next five weeks being interrogated and beaten. His skull was fractured and his shoulders dislocated.
“To save his own ass, this American rolls up the rest of the organization, gives it away,” said Joseph P. O’Neill, the deputy chief of mission at the American embassy. Scores of Ethiopians were jailed, tortured, or killed as a consequence.