Decades later, CIA learns from failed spy mis­sion in China

Austin American-Statesman - - WORLD & NATION - By Robert Burns

WASHINGTON — De­tail by painful de­tail, the CIA is com­ing to grips with one of the most dev­as­tat­ing episodes in its his­tory, a botched cloak-and-dag­ger flight into China that stole two decades of free­dom from a pair of fresh­faced Amer­i­can op­er­a­tives and cost the lives of their two pi­lots.

In open­ing up about the 1952 de­ba­cle, the agency is find­ing ways to use it as a teach­ing tool. Mis­takes of the past can serve as cau­tion­ary tales for to­day’s spies and para­mil­i­tary of­fi­cers tak­ing on ter­ror­ists.

At the cen­ter of the story are two ea­ger CIA of­fi­cers on their first over­seas as­sign­ment, John Downey of New Bri­tain, Conn., and Richard Fecteau of Lynn, Mass., whose plane was shot from the night sky in a Chi­nese am­bush.

At 22, with one year of agency ser­vice, Downey was des­tined to spend the next 20 years, three months and 14 days in Chi­nese pris­ons. Fecteau, who was 25, was be­hind bars for 19 years and 14 days.

Both sur­vived. Their pi­lots, Robert Sn­oddy, 31, a na­tive of Rose­burg, Ore., and 29-year-old Nor­man Schwartz of Louisville, Ky., did not.

Three years ago, the CIA de­clas­si­fied an in­ter­nal his­tory of the af­fair. And it hired a filmmaker to pro­duce an hour­long doc­u­men­tary. The CIA doesn’t plan to re­lease the film pub­licly, but the agency pre­miered it for em­ploy­ees last month at its Lan­g­ley, Va., head­quar­ters.

Downey and Fecteau de­clined through CIA of­fi­cials to be in­ter­viewed for this story. They at­tended the film screen­ing and were flooded with ap­plause and agency au­to­graph seekers.

Their tale forms part of the back­drop to to­day’s un­easy U.S.-China re­la­tion­ship, es­pe­cially Bei­jing’s anger about Amer­i­can mil­i­tary sup­port for China’s anti-com­mu­nist ri­vals in Tai­wan.

In the early years of the Cold War, Downey and Fecteau were as­signed to a covert pro­gram called Third Force, in­tended to cre­ate a re­sis­tance net­work in China. Small teams of non­com­mu­nist Chi­nese ex­iles were air­dropped into China’s Manchuria re­gion to link up with Richard Fecteau was re­leased from a Chi­nese prison in De­cem­ber 1971. He had been cap­tured at age 25 and spent more than 19 years be­hind bars, with long stretches in soli­tary con­fine­ment. dis­af­fected com­mu­nist gen­er­als.

The goal was to desta­bi­lize Mao Ze­dong’s new govern­ment and dis­tract it from the Korean War, which Chi­nese forces had en­tered two years ear­lier. The plan failed — badly. “The CIA had been ‘had,’” the late James Lil­ley, who helped train agent teams for in­ser­tion into China, wrote in his 2004 mem­oir, “China Hands.” There were no dis­si­dent com­mu­nist Chi­nese gen­er­als to be found, and the Chi­nese in Tai­wan and Hong Kong who sold the idea turned out to be swindlers, Lil­ley wrote.

“The whole pro­gram smacked of am­a­teurism,” CIA his­to­rian Ni­cholas Du­j­movic said.

On Nov. 29, 1952, above the foothills of the Chang­bai moun­tains, Downey and Fecteau flew into Chi­nese air space in an un­armed C- 47 Skytrain plane. They planned to swoop low over a ren­dezvous point marked with three small bon­fires and use a tail hook to pick up a Chi­nese agent off the ground with­out land­ing. Downey was to reel in the agent with a winch aboard the plane.

As they de­scended, the sky sud­denly ex­ploded in bursts of gun­fire. The agent had lured the Amer­i­cans into a Chi­nese am­bush.

Af­ter the C-47 slammed through a grove of trees, the cock­pit burst into flames and skid­ded to a halt near the vil­lage of San­dao.

Downey and Fecteau, stunned and bruised but alive, were cap­tured on the spot. They were hauled off to prison — first in the city of Muk­den, then in Bei­jing — in­ter­ro­gated and iso­lated in sep­a­rate cells. Each spent long stretches in soli­tary con­fine­ment, alone with their fears.

It was an in­tel­li­gence bo­nanza for the Chi­nese. Both Amer­i­cans, af­ter a psy­cho­log­i­cal bat­ter­ing, spilled the beans, to vary­ing de­grees.

Here lay one of the lessons: Agency of­fi­cers with close links to a covert ac­tion pro­gram shouldn’t fly on such mis­sions.

An­other blun­der: At a CIA base on the Pa­cific is­land of Saipan, the Chi­nese agent teams lived and trained to­gether, in­evitably learn­ing of each other’s mis­sions. So the cap­ture of one team risked com­pro­mis­ing the rest.

Also, Downey was well-known to the Chi­nese op­er­a­tives be­cause he trained them. When Downey was cap­tured, a Chi­nese se­cu­rity of­fi­cer pointed at him and said in English, “You are Jack. Your fu­ture is very dark.”

For two years, un­til China an­nounced that Downey and Fecteau had been con­victed of es­pi­onage and sen­tenced — Fecteau to 20 years, Downey to life — nei­ther the CIA nor the men’s fam­i­lies knew their fate. The fam­i­lies had re­ceived letters say­ing the two men were “pre­sumed dead.”

The CIA con­cocted a cover story, telling the fam­i­lies that the four had dis­ap­peared on a rou­tine com­mer­cial flight from Korea to Ja­pan on Dec. 3, four days af­ter they were shot down.

Af­ter China an­nounced that Downey and Fecteau were be­ing held as spies, Washington pub­licly de­nied it, claim­ing they were civil­ian em­ploy­ees of the Army.

China re­leased Fecteau in De­cem­ber 1971 and Downey in March 1973, af­ter Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon pub­licly ac­knowl­edged Downey’s CIA con­nec­tion.

Both said af­ter their re­turn that to cope with their con­fine­ment, they stuck strictly to a daily sched­ule. Downey said he would rise each morn­ing and be­gin a se­ries of ac­tiv­i­ties in his cell: calisthenics, clean­ing, eat­ing, read­ing, lis­ten­ing to the ra­dio and re­view­ing an oc­ca­sional pack­age of letters, books and mag­a­zines. Fecteau had a sim­i­lar ap­proach but var­ied his rou­tine by the day of the week.

Re­mark­ably, once home, they re­sumed nor­mal lives. Downey earned a law de­gree from Har­vard and be­came a judge. Fecteau re­turned to his alma mater, Bos­ton Uni­ver­sity, as as­sis­tant ath­letic di­rec­tor.

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