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Reel-life espionage

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 coming to a theater near you.

world Updated: Jul 08, 2010 01:42 IST

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 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 September 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 destabilise 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.

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.

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.

They were subject to constant interrogations, sleep deprivation and were forced to stand in leg irons to the point of collapse during questioning.

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.

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.

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.

"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."

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First Published: Jul 08, 2010 01:36 IST