Michael Sellers was arrested on March 10, 1986 in Moscow while conducting a covert meeting with Sergey Vorontsov, or GTCOWL as the agent was known within CIA. It was later determined the Aldrich Ames, the KGB ‘mole’ within the CIA, had provided information leading to the compromise of the Vorontsov operation. For a detailed account of Michael Sellers service to country as a CIA Officer click here.
The first portion of the video concerns Lon Augustenberg, a CIA officer arrested in Leningrad. The section detailing Michael Sellers’ arrest begins at 5:05 on the timeline.
The following passage from The Main Enemy, written by Sellers’ CIA supervisor at the time Milton Bearden and Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times journalist James Risen describes the circumstances leading to the arrest, and the interrogation:
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.