After Moscow, because he had now been repeatedly identified in global media as a CIA Officer, Sellers was offered the opportunity to “cool off” with a desk job at Headquarters. But he was also offered a challenging assignment to Manila, where Corazon Aquino had just been elected as President to replace the corrupt Marcos military dictatorship. Aquino was threatened on the left by the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its military wing, the New People’s Army (NPA), and on the right by retrograde military officers who distrusted the civilian government and who would, during next three years, mount seven coup attempts against Mrs. Aquino. Sellers accepted the Manila assignment with enthusiasm.
Arriving in the Philippines in September 1986, Sellers was assigned by Chief of Station Norbert Garrett to handle a unique channel of personal liaison between the CIA and President Aquino. The liaison would be accomplished through Teodoro Locsin, Jr., a Harvard Law Graduate who was Aquino’s Presidential Legal Counsel, principal speechwriter, and close personal friend and advisor. Michael was also assigned as CIA personal liaison with Filipino Vice-President Salvador Laurel, with whom he met directly on more than 100 occasions and developed a close relationship. He also consulted with the Philippine civilian intelligence agency, the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency (NICA), the Philippine equivalent of the combined CIA and FBI, through 75 year old NICA Director General Luis Villareal, a West Point graduate and close confidante of President Aquino who would become Michael’s mentor in “Filipino values.” The NICA assignment included project management of the CIA’s nationwide counterinsurgency program against the long-running CPP/NPA communist insurgency.
Michael spent almost four years in the Philippines. His duties included:
- Support to President Aquino. According Aquino’s personal liaison to the CIA, Teodoro Locsin: “Mike Sellers was the main conduit of information going to and coming from the US government regarding the perilous political situation of the fledgling Philippine democracy Mrs. Aquino had restored… Our cooperative efforts allowed the young democracy in some cases to preempt and in others to mount a successful defense.”
- Intelligence. Sellers recruited numerous agents, two of them from the ranks of the communist insurgents. He also succeeded in recruiting a Muslim separatist who gave information allowing the CIA to thwart a terrorist bombing in Manila. This agent provided the information on Muslim extremists who would later be tied to Al Qaeda.
- Counterinsurgency Operations. Michael managed the CIA’s counterinsurgency effort against NPA – a multi-million dollar “hearts and minds” program under which rural development teams were deployed to compete directly with similar teams from the NPA. Pro-democracy information campaigns were carried out. The NPA had gained support among segments of the population during the years of the corrupt and repressive Marcos regime, and outreach had to be conducted to emphasize that a new type of government was in place. Development activities focusing on clean water and medical aid were implemented. Michael traveled extensively into NPA-influenced and controlled areas without security backup or other protection.
In April of 1989, the NPA assassinated U.S. defense attaché Colonel Nicholas Rowe in Manila. Not long after, NPA snipers from a separate unit killed three U.S. personnel near Clark Air Base. From multiple intelligence reports, it was learned that Michael was one of three “main targets” of NPA assassination squads — the other two being the CIA Station Chief and the Ambassador. The COS and Michael were authorized to evacuate their wives and children back to the U.S. Michael could have gone with them but chose to remain at his post. He was issued an armored Isuzu Trooper, and until the end of his tour of duty was required to take extraordinary security measures, abandoning his official residence and moving constantly between various safe houses.
The 7th Coup Attempt : December 1989
Sellers service in the Philippines reached a zenith during the seventh and final coup attempt against the Aquino regime – service for which he subsequently received the Intelligence Commendation Medal. On November 30, 1989 the main combat elements of the Philippine military joined forces to mount a city-wide attack against the Aquino government. Michael was contacted immediately by Teodoro Locsin, Jr., who had just been informed of the coup and summoned to Malacanang Palace along with other senior administration officials. Locsin informed Michael that a coup attempt was underway and requested that he travel to Locsin’s high rise condominium apartment in Makati — the “Wall Street” section of Manila — to protect Locsin’s wife and widowed mother, and to field the “hotline” communications with the Palace. Michael would remain in constant contact with Locsin and other top-level Aquino officials throughout the seven days of the coup attempt, and would remain at his post at Locsin’s apartment even after it became extremely dangerous to do so.
By 8:00 AM the morning after the coup began, the rebels had advanced to within five blocks of Malacanang Palace, where Aquino’s only remaining defense force was her 500 man Presidential Security Guard. At this point her Defense Secretary Fidel Ramos famously announced: “Ma’am, we’ve lost.” Upon hearing Ramos’ pronouncement, Locsin, who was at the President’s side, immediately called Michael and informed him of Ramos’ assessment, which Michael in turn relayed to Ambassador Nicholas Platt and Washington. Locsin and Michael then began to discuss the possibility of US intervention as a measure of last resort.
The Locsin-Sellers channel became the mechanism through which delicate negotiations led to Aquino making an unprecedented request for U.S. military force — a request which provoked immense debate in Washington where an emergency meeting of the U.S. Cabinet was convened. President Bush authorized US F-16’s from Clark Air Base to fly in support of Aquino under strict rules of engagement devised by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell. Locsin and others have credited Sellers with playing a crucial role in convincing the highest levels of the US leadership of the danger Mrs. Aquino was in and her critical need for US military support in order to survive.
The following interview with U.S. Ambassador Nicholas Platt on the afternoon of 1 December demonstrates the outcome of the Locsin-Sellers-Platt channel.
The US flew air cover for the remainder of the afternoon on December 1, ausing “fence-sitters” in the Philippine military to declare their allegiance. That night, a major battle took place at Camp Aguinaldo. The following is an English language Philippine news report the following morning which provides an excellent summary of the events of the previous day, including the “persuasion flights” by the U.S. military and their role in turning the tide.
While U.S. intervention prevented the renegade officers from taking Malacanang, it did not end the coup. The next morning rebels stormed Makati, taking over eight high rise condominiums and three five star hotels, in effect, holding the Aquino government hostage.
Among the buildings taken by rebels was the Tuscany Condominiums, where Michael was caring for Locsin’s wife and mother while communicating with both governments. Held hostage and confined to the apartment, Michael used the highrise’s 360 degree view of the city to monitor and report rebel movements to both the Philippine and U.S. Governments throughout what became known as the “Siege of Makati.” Over the next four days the apartment building suffered heavy fire from rebels on multiple occasions. Locsin’s apartment was hit repeatedly (and perhaps intentionally), complicating the process of gathering intelligence on rebel positions.
Following is Corazon Aquino’s address to the nation on December 2, on the morning after US air support turned the tide in favor of the government. Her address was written by Locsin, who is standing behind her.
On Wednesday December 5th, with Makati still under rebel control, Michael securely evacuated Ted Locsin’s wife and ailing mother, passing them through rebel-held areas to the safety of government lines.
Three-term member of the Philipine Congress Ted Locsin writes in his letter:
Mr. Sellers, knowing the danger to my wife and other members of my family, and realizing how the situation might affect my work back at the Palace, engineered a bold escape from the building. It involved exposing themselves to rebel machinegun positions and a long dangerous walk through the rebel-held financial district to the comparative safety of a house from where he was able to secure a complete escape from the area. The reality of this danger may be illustrated by the brazenly videotaped execution of rebel soldiers of two mere security guards in a neighboring building.
A day later the coup finally ended. Weeks later, Sellers learned that for his role in preserving democracy in the Philippines, Michael received the CIA’s Intelligence Commendation Medal.
Two months later, after ten years of service, Sellers resigned from CIA to resume his career as a writer and filmmaker. His Intelligence Commendation Medal was awarded to him on his last day at CIA.
In February, 1990, he left CIA and began a new chapter in his life.