After completing his service in Ethiopia, Sellers was offered a challenging assignment to the “crown jewel” of the clandestine service – Moscow Station. In preparation for the assignment, he underwent a fifteen month training and orientation process that included detailed study of the entire history of Moscow operations; 10 months of intensive Russian language training; and two months of high intensity training in SE Division’s Soviet Internal Operations Course. Milton Bearden, a decorated senior CIA officer whose book “The Main Enemy” is considered one of the most most authoritative account of the CIA in the 1980’s, wrote of the SE Internal Operations Course:
Like the Navy’s famed Top Gun school for fighter pilots, the CIA’s “Internal Operations” course was the most arduous training program the agency had to offer. It was restricted to a handpicked elite—case officers slated for assignments in Moscow, Warsaw, Prague, and other capital cities in the Soviet empire. These were among the most difficult jobs in the CIA.”
When Michael arrived at Moscow Station in September of 1984, he was no longer part of the Deep Cover program because, under torture, Tim Wells, his successor in Ethiopia, had revealed Michael’s identity to Ethiopian and East German Security personnel. This meant Michael would be under the KGB’s most intense 24/7 surveillance every time he stepped out of the embassy or his apartment.
U.S. Embassy, Moscow
In Moscow, the Station was a shoebox-shaped enclosure deep within the Embassy – a “box within a box within a box” with no phone or outside electrical connections (battery lights only) and no typewriters. The cramped “submarine” environment was designed to shield the work from KGB technical penetration. The Station Chief was Murat Natirboff, a 62 year old legend of the CIA Clandestine Service; his deputy Bill Norville was a 42 year old veteran of Warsaw and the Kuklinski operation. Sellers was one of a small cadre of Operations Officers based in the station.
Lucy and Michael Sellers, Moscow 1985
Because of the 24/7 surveillance, performing an operational act required devising a scenario that would allow the officer to escape from surveillance without the tailing Soviets agents surveillance being aware the officer had disappeared, and then, after the act was complete, “close the circle” by re-inserting himself into his normal life without surveillance ever suspecting he had been missing. Such scenarios were hard to devise; harder yet to get approved. Each such scenario involved at least 100 hours of meticulous and imaginative planning and had to be approved first by the Deputy Chief of Station and Chief of Station, then at Langley by the C/USSR Branch, C/SE/Operations, and finally by C/SE Division Burton Gerber who had served previously as COS Moscow and was not hesitant to reject any operational plan that he found lacking. Michael’s language skill and ability to “pass” as a Russian contributed to the number and sensitivity of the operational acts he was called upon to carry out.
The CIA has publicly acknowledged certain of the techniques that were used to escape from surveillance to perform operational acts. These include “identity transfer,” in which he would take on the appearance of a low-level Embassy staffer who didn’t draw surveillance, “van escape” which involved the use of a compartmented cavity in a van; a “JIB” escape technique where he would eject from the passenger seat of a moving car at a blind corner and be replaced for surveillance purposes by a specially crafted “JIB” (Jack-in-the-Box) dummy; and an apartment house escape scenario which required the officer to securely exit and rappel down an apartment building, and return “up the rope” using an ascension device. Sellers was repeatedly selected to perform some of the most complex and dangerous “escape from surveillance” scenarios ever approved for execution by the CIA in Moscow.
In addition to recognition within the CIA, Michael’s operational skills were also acknowledged by an unusual source — legendary KGB Counterintelligence Chief Rem Krassilnikov who was in charge of KGB operations against the CIA in Moscow from 1979-1999, and who wrote of Michael in his memoir:
“The meetings with the agent “Kapyushon” were assigned to the station agent handling officer Michael Sellers. The station had carefully devised a plan to conduct meetings with the valuable agent, and Sellers himself demonstrated all the art of a potential actor, a gift for concealment and mimicry. Michael would go to the clandestine agent meet disguised as the American diplomat Ronald Patterson, who was a neighbor of his, and would use the latter’s car, which was kindly supplied by the owner. For conspiracy purposes, Sellers was equipped with a wig and fake mustache; en route he would change hat and scarf, and put on glasses.”
Aside from the complexity and danger of the operations, the substance of the information that was acquired contributed in major, measurable ways to the strategic security of the United States. The CIA has publicly released details of these operations Michael participated in:
- GTVANQUISH: Adolf Tolkachev was an avionics engineer who provided strategic intelligence on Soviet fighter-interceptor radar and other systems. From Tolkachev the US learned details on the MIG-31 Foxhound phased radar system, undoubtedly saving U.S. lives. The value of Tolkachev’s intelligence has been described by the CIA as “incalculable.” One specific document led directly to the U.S. Defense Department completely reversing direction of a $70 million electronics package for our F-15 Eagle tactical fighter jet. Tolkachev provided many such “jewels.” The CIA has recently released a lengthy declassified summary of the Tolkachev Case which can be viewed at the CIA’s “Studies in Intelligence” website: Tolkachev, a Worthy Successor to Penkovsky
- GTTAW: A complicated wiretap mechanism installed on a twelve-line telephone cable in a Moscow manhole. The tap led straight to a Soviet military installation outside of Moscow and provided critical strategic information on Soviet defense capabilities and had to be replaced every three months.
- GTEASTBOUND: A Soviet scientist working on top secret weapons and aircraft technology. Michael met with the major on two occasions when he traveled to Moscow. The meetings resulted in CIA gathering key documents detailing the capabilities of Soviet fighter aircraft.
Sellers also provided critical language and operational support in responding to a volunteer who was later described by C/SE Division Milton Bearden in The Main Enemy as having information which, “ …contained data on the Soviet strategic weapons program that had until then been the subject of only the most speculative analysis. The level of detail and precision of the documentation could redraw American assessments of Soviet nuclear weapons development.”
Sellers’ duty in Moscow coincided with what would emerge as a climactic period of the Cold War, with 1985 being dubbed “The Year of the Spy.” More than a dozen major espionage cases involving Americans and Soviets came to light in 1985 with public revelations about moles on both sides; arrests; expulsions; and on the Soviet side, executions of CIA assets. The series of compromises began in June 1985 with the arrest and subsequent execution of Adolf Tolkachev, GTVANQUISH.
Michael’s involvement as the agent handler of the GTCOWL operation placed him in the thick of “Year of the Spy” events and his Moscow tour ended abruptly after 21 months and left him with a unique place in espionage history.
GTCOWL was Sergey Vorontsov, a KGB counterintelligence officer who worked directly against the Americans in Moscow. He became an agent for the CIA in 1984. At a first meeting with a different case officer, Vorontsov provided documents that clearly established his bona fides, but was unable to communicate successfully due to the case officer’s limited Russian language skills and Vorontsov’s propensity to speak a gutteral, street-jargon type of Russian. As a result, the Chief of Station and C/SE Division called on Sellers to handle subsequent meetings with Vorontsov.
For his first meeting with Vorontsov in April 1985, Michael executed an escape from surveillance maneuver followed by a two hour Surveillance Detection Run before meeting Vorontsov. Dressed in disguise that would enable him pass as a Russian and carrying $50,000 in rubles earmarked for payment to Vorontsev, Sellers spent 90 minutes in intense conversation walking through side streets of Moscow during which the Russian provided a wealth of counter-intelligence information in response to more than 60 questions provided by Langley which Michael had memorized prior to the meeting. This “walking debriefing” on the streets of Moscow yielded: disclosure by Vorontsov of a critical tradecraft error that had compromised a major operation; the names of three CIA Soviet agents in third country locations who, unbeknownst to CIA, were actually working as double agents for the Soviets; the revelation of a sophisticated KGB wiretap operation that had compromised NATO communications to and from the French Embassy; and operational details plus a physical sample of a chemical tracking powder used by the KGB to track CIA officers. Vorontsov sprayed the KGB tracking powder, which turned out to be a dangerous mutagenic compound known as NPPD, into a reinforced plastic bag and handed it to Sellers.
Two months later the U.S. government, based on the NPPD sample provided by Michael, publicly demanded that the Soviets discontinue use of the tracking powder due to its possible carcinogenic properties. As a result, the term “spy dust” entered the lexicon of intelligence and the KGB appeared to stop using NPPD. Sellers was evacuated to Frankfurt for medical evaluation due to heavy NPPD exposure, and received special medical checks for the next 10 years to monitor any lingering effects from the toxic substance.
Vorontsov missed his next meeting, scheduled for November, and missed alternates in December and January. Meanwhile the “Year of the Spy” was continuing in both Moscow and Washington, with revelation upon revelation of spying on both sides. KGB General Vitaliy Yurchenko had defected to the U.S. in July; CIA Officer Ed Howard had defected to the Soviets in September; and U.S. Embassy Marine Security Guard Clayton Lonetree had begun spying for the KGB.
In this environment, the decision to approve the next scheduled meeting with Vorontsov on March 10, 1986 was a difficult one. There was great concern that Vorontsov had been compromised and a meeting might result in an ambush. On the other hand, the value of the intelligence was such that the pressure to attempt the meeting was great. Adding to the complexity of the decision was the fact that two weeks earlier a pair of KGB officers had disappeared in South Africa and the KGB had communicated their belief that the CIA was behind the disappearance — leading to concerns that if Michael were captured, the KGB might elect to deny knowledge of his whereabouts and hold him as a bargaining chip for the missing KGB officers.
After much debate at Langley, and with the awareness of the high stakes should it fail, the operation was submitted to the White House for Presidential approval. The approval was granted and the operation proceeded.
For this operation, Michael executed an identity transfer escape in which he wore prosthetic mask and hands which allowed him to exit his diplomatic complex in the identity of Ronald Patterson, a low-level Embassy staffer who did not regularly draw surveillance. The exit from the compound involved passing through a militia checkpoint and KGB observation post in the “Patterson” disguise. After confirming he was surveillance free (a one hour process), Michael parked Patterson’s car, removed and cached the Patterson mask, then began a long countersurveillance run on foot and using public transportation in a second disguise as a Russian citizen. After further ensuring he was without surveillance, Michael made several additional disguise changes, further eliminating any possibility that he was under observation.
The following account of what happened next comes from The Main Enemy, written by Milton Bearden and Pulitzer Prize Winning New York Times journalist James Risen. Bearden was Chief of the Soviet/East European at the time of the events that transpired on March 10, 1986, and thus read all of the reporting and was involved in the debriefing of Sellers after he returned to the US:
Moscow, March 10, 1986
Michael Sellers had met GTCOWL once, almost exactly one year earlier. During that first meeting, a two-hour-long walking conversation as the to men furtively navigated Moscow’s back streets and alleys, the KGB man never revealed his identity. He said he know how closely the KGB tracked American CIA officers inMoscow and didn’t want to take any chances with his own security. Sellers knew him only by the name they’d agreed to use — “Stas.”
Stas hd first volunteered in 1985, when he dropped an envelope through the open window of the car of an American embassy official as he walked by. The CIA eventually sent an officer to contact him, but the officer who managed to break free of surveillance that night couldn’t understand the volunteer’s Russian, and the meeting had been a bust. The failure of that first meeting fueled a debate back at CIA headquarters about whether the Soviet was a real volunteer, or a plant.
COWL was gruff, and even an excellent Russian speaker like Sellers found him difficult to understand. Sellers took him to be from the Second Chief Directorate’s local counterintelligence forces in Moscow. He was the Moscow version of a New York cop — a Soviet Popeye Doyle. He made no bones about what he wanted. It was money, and he was shy about the cynicism of his approach. He grew impatient whenever Sellers, who was wearing a tape recorder, asked hm to repeat or clarify something.
But the man knew plenty about the KGB’s tracking of CIA operations in Mowcow, and as the two spies cautiously maneuvered their way through the city’s darkened streets, COWL warned Sellers that he wouldn’t provide the CIA with documents that could be traced back to him, and he demanded that any money passed to him come from “clean” sources outside the Soviet Union, and be placed in packages that were never opened by CIA officers in Moscow.
Sellers and COWL had worked out a careful communications plan to set up future meetings. COWL gave Sellers a phone number to call at prearranged times, with ten-minute windows he declared as “safe”. The CIA later concluded it was a KGB duty phone line, one that couldn’t be traced to any specific individual in the KGB. COWL would arrange to be the only officer at that number at the prescheduled times, and the CIA man would call in with prearranged, innocuous-sounding messages.
After one meeting, COWL dropped out of sight for several months. He failed to respond to one call but eventually responded to another callout in March 1986. Sellers was sent out to meet him.
On the night of March 10, Sellers thought he had broken free of surveillance for his late-night run by pulling off an identity transfer with another embassy employees. Later, when he was “black” on Moscow’s icy streets, he quickly changed into Russian street clothes and melted into the flow of Muscovites on their way home.
The meeting site was an alleyway between two Stalinist apartment blocks not far from Moscow’s Lenin Hills district. Sellers arrived at the meeting site at 10:30 PM and as he got to within twenty feet of COWL, he could sense that something was very wrong. COWL had lost weight and, it seemed to Sellers, his tough-guy swagger. When he began to speak, he could only stammer. The man was a ghost of his former self, and in that instant Sellers braced himself for what he knew was about to happen.
Oh, shit, Sellers said to himself. Here it comes.
Suddenly, glaring lights lit up the street, and men came running from all directions. The arrest, Sellers thought, was straight out of the movies. He was thrown into th back of a van by a small army of KGB security men, and GTCOWL disappeared in the blur.
In the back to eh van, the KGB men, talking among themselves in Russian–perhaps not realizing how well Sellers could understand them–appeared confused as to whom they had just arrested. Finally, one of the security men reached over to Sellers, and as he pulled off his fake mustache, a look of recognition flashed across his face.
“Ah, Misha!” the man exclaimed, using the Russian diminutive of Michael. The CIA disguise was better than they had anticipated. The security men noticed the mud on Sellers’ shoes, and they began debating in Russian how he could possibly have gotten out of the embassy and disguised himself as a Russian worker without anyone on the surveillance stakeout team noticing him.
The van drove sellers and his minders to an annex of Lubyanka Prison — the interrogation office at #2 Dzerzhinsky.
Sellers spent only a few hours in interrogation. By 2:30 AM stuart Parker, a counselor officer in the American embassy, had arrived to take him home. But during those few hours, Sellers had sparred with Rem Krassilnikov, trying to parry each question from the KGB’s gray ghost. Normally, CIA officers were told to say nothing while under arrest, except to declare diplomatic immunity and to ask to see a counselor officer from the embassy. Sellers knew the game, but he couldn’t resist giving a few jabs, especially since he could speak Russian with his captors. When Krassilnikov told Sellers that his arrest would damage his career with the CIA, Sellers told him he was wrong, it wouldn’t hurt his career at the agency. Perhaps to encourage Sellers to keep talking, Krassilnikov tried to switch to small talk, describing the little details of his life known to the KGB. He was the goaltender on the American embassy’s broom ball team — what did he think about American hockey versus Russian hockey. But in trying to keep Sellers engaged, Krassilnikov revealed some interesting facts. It became clear to Sellers that Krassilnikov didn’t know how he had gotten out of his apartment for his meeting. The KGB still didn’t have a good understanding of the CIA’s identity transfer techniques, and finding Sellers at the arrest team had puzzled them; his watchers thought he was still in his apartment.
It wasn’t until long after his arrest that Sellers learned COWL’s real identity: Sergey Vorontsov.
Sellers arrest and interrogation was filmed and excerpts appeared in a Soviet documentary on the CIA in Moscow. Following are screen shots of Sellers taken from the Soviet documentary:
After his release and return to Washington, Sellers was, ironically, debriefed on his experience by Aldrich Ames, head of Counterintelligence for the CIA’s Soviet/East European Division. It would later be discovered that Ames had begun working as a “mole” for the KGB in May of 1985, and it had been Ames who provided the KGB the information that led to the arrest of Sellers and Vorontsov. Ames would later be tried and convicted of espionage and treason, and is serving a life sentence in federal prison.
Following is an excerpt from the documentary itself. The portion detailing Sellers’ arrest and interrogation begins at 5:05 on the timeline.
Vorontsov was tried and executed.
Sellers, his cover blown by news articles in Time, Newsweek, the Washington Post, and other media, completed the debriefings and with his wife Lucy and son Patrick, proceeded to Florida for home leave. A normal outcome of Sellers “blown” status would have been an extended tour at CIA Headquarters in Langley – but Sellers made it clear that he preferred another overseas assignment. For an overseas assignment to be viable, he would have to be “declared” to the host government and thus go to a friendly country where such liaison between the CIA and the host government was the norm. As it happened, weeks before Sellers was arrested in Moscow, Corazon Aquino had come to power in the Philippines, ending fifteen years of Martial Law under former strongman Ferdinand Marcos. Aquino faced a tremendous array of problems, ranging from dissatisfied right wing coup plotters in the military to a stubborn communist insurgency that had flourished under the callous period of martial law. The idea of helping the Aquino government stand up against both right wing and left wing threats made the prospective assignment an exciting one, and Sellers took it without hesitation.