June 2, 2011 -- The Central Intelligence Agency will for the first time make public today a documentary the agency produced chronicling the dramatic capture and two decade-long imprisonment and interrogation of two of its agents by the Chinese government after a blown secret mission, the CIA said today.
The film, titled "Extraordinary Fidelity" presumably after the inscription on the Director's Medal each agent won after their release in the 1970s, is the first of its kind and until now was only intended to be shown within the agency's walls. It will first be shown tonight at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, and is expected to be uploaded to the internet.
The Associated Press, which was present for the film's premier at CIA headquarters in June 2010, recently obtained a copy through a Freedom of Information Act request. CIA spokesman George Little told ABC News the agency chose now to release the film because the CIA thought "it's the right time to tell the story of heroism of two agency officers who risked a great deal and sacrificed a great deal."
The documentary covers the saga of agents John Downey and Richard Fecteau who were captured by the Chinese after their plane was shot down during a classified mission in November 1952. According to the CIA's account -- which is in part reenacted in the movie -- their original mission was to "retrieve an agent" from the Chinese mainland through the daring Skyhook system -- using a hook attached to the plane to literally snag a person directly off the ground and reel them into the plane.
But before the operation could be carried out, Downey and Fecteau were betrayed by their contacts on the ground and flew straight into an ambush. Two pilots were killed when the plane was battered by waiting anti-aircraft fire and crashed, but Downey and Fecteau survived. The pair was taken into Chinese custody where they would spend the next 20 years, though for the first two even the CIA did not know they were alive. When they discovered their men were alive, CIA stuck with a preplanned cover story and disavowed any knowledge of the agents.
"[It was] U.S. policy that there would be no bargaining, no concessions, and no recognition of the Communist Chinese," the CIA said.
It wasn't until December 1971 that Fecteau was released, followed by Downey 15 months later, due to what the agency called "warming relations" between the U.S. and China. Though they endured harsh conditions and repeated interrogations, the CIA said the men had never been tortured.
"This story is important as a part of U.S. intelligence history because it demonstrates the risks of operations (and the consequences of operational error), the qualities of character necessary to endure hardship, and the potential damage to reputations through the persistence of false stories about past events," the CIA says in a retelling of the story on its website. "Above all, the saga of John Downey and Richard Fecteau is about remarkable faithfulness, shown not only by the men who were deprived of their freedom, but also by an Agency that never gave up hope."
The film was produced by the CIA's Center for the Study of Intelligence, according to the AP report, and was directed by documentary filmmaker Paul Wimmer.