By Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 7, 2010; B03
It was standing room only inside "The Bubble," the retro, igloo-shaped auditorium at CIA headquarters, for the recent world premier of a film that is not -- repeat, not -- coming to a theater near you. "Extraordinary Fidelity" tells the story of two CIA paramilitary officers who were shot down over China on their first mission in 1952 and spent two decades, including long stretches of solitary confinement, in Chinese prisons.
The film, commissioned by the CIA's Center for the Study of Intelligence, is the first in a possible series of documentaries that will highlight key or dramatic moments in the agency's history. The saga depicted in "Extraordinary Fidelity" is not well known among today's personnel, half of whom joined the agency after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, according to agency officials.
"For this new generation . . . this is an effective way of doing our history," said Nicholas Dujmovic, a CIA historian. "This, we are hoping, is the start of a series."
John T. Downey, now 80, and Richard G. Fecteau, now 82, flew into Manchuria in the back of C-47 to pick up a Chinese courier, one of a team of agents who were to be part of a CIA effort to promote guerrilla operations that would destabilize the government of Mao Zedong, and later divert Chinese resources from the war in Korea.
But the team of agents had been turned by the Chinese, and the pick-up was a well-planned ambush. Internal warnings about the integrity of the agents were ignored; one CIA senior operations officer said he was "90 percent" certain the agents had been doubled. And, in any case, an officer like Downey, who had trained the team of agents, should never have been flying over Chinese territory because he knew too much about plans and personnel.
"There were serious mistakes made in this operation," Dujmovic said.
Some agency personnel thought Downey and Fecteau must have been joy-riding, according to an unclassified study, but in fact they were ordered on to the flight.
"I felt for him," Downey said of the man who sent him on the mission, according to an article in the CIA journal "Studies in Intelligence." "It turned out to be such a goddamned disaster from his point of view."
And everyone else's as well.
Downey and Fecteau had planned to fly over Manchuria, literally hook onto their agent and winch him into their aircraft. But the plane, after being strafed by Chinese fire, crash-landed, killing the pilots, Norman Schwartz and Robert Snoddy. Remarkably, Downey and Fecteau were only bruised. They were quickly identified by the waiting Chinese.
"You are Jack," said a Chinese officer, speaking in English and pointing at Downey.
For the next two years, the Chinese said nothing about capturing the two men, who were presumed dead by the CIA. Their families received letters from then Director Allen Dulles.
In fact, Downey and Fecteau were being held first in Mukden and then Beijing. They were subject to constant interrogations, sleep deprivation and were forced to stand in leg irons to the point of collapse during questioning.
The article in the CIA journal noted that internal records described Downey and Fecteau as having been subjected to "harsh interrogation techniques" or "brutal treatment," but never described what they endured as "torture."
Two years after the Americans flew out of an airfield in Korea, the Xinhua News Agency announced that Downey and Fecteau had been convicted of espionage. Downey was sentenced to life in prison and Fecteau to 20 years.
After the crash, the two men saw each other again for the first time at their military trial as they stood side-by-side in black Mao suits.
"Who's your tailor?" asked Fecteau, in his broad Massachusetts accent, one of numerous wisecracks that drew howls of laughter at the CIA screening.
The documentary cuts between interviews with Downey and Fecteau, and re-created prison scenes with actors that were shot at Fort Washington and an old mental asylum in Petersburg, Va.
Both men attended the screening and drew standing ovations when they were introduced to the crowd by CIA Director Leon Panetta. After the hour-long film, agency personnel stood in long lines to meet them and ask for autographs.
Neither man would talk to the news media, and they agreed to cooperate in the making of the film only because it was for internal agency use.
In December 1971, following national security adviser Henry Kissinger's secret mission to Beijing, Fecteau was released, crossing by foot into Hong Kong, where a British officer gave him a beer and a cigarette. Downey was released in March 1973, following an appeal from President Nixon.
Both men retired from the CIA. Downey went on to be a judge in Connecticut, and Fecteau became assistant athletic director at Boston University, his alma mater. They were awarded the Director's Medal in 1998.
"The story of Jack Downey and Dick Fecteau is really one of the most impressive and important in CIA's history," Panetta said. "It carries enduring lessons about the values of the agency and the caliber of people who accomplish our mission."