BEIJING – It’s got all the elements of a Hollywood summer blockbuster: secret agents, dangerous operations deep in enemy territory, ruthless interrogations and detentions.
And it’s coming to a YouTube link near you by the producers of America’s most covert operations, the Central Intelligence Agency.
The release of “Extraordinary Fidelity,” a documentary commissioned by the CIA's Center for the Study of Intelligence was originally not meant to be viewed by the general public. Rather, it was intended to be an instructional video for an agency that by one account, now comprises a force half of whom only joined after September 11, 2001, and is perhaps slowly losing its institutional history.
The documentary tells the story of John T. Downey and Richard G. Fecteau, two CIA agents who were shot down over northern China on their first mission in 1952. The two were attempting to extract a Chinese agent as part of a larger CIA operation to raise an indigenous Chinese guerilla force whose mission it would be to destabilize the new Communist government under Mao Zedong.
The operation was part of a greater strategy to shift Chinese soldiers and material away from the Korean peninsula, where the United States had already been at war since 1950.
Crash landing in China, the two were immediately picked up by soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army and eventually taken to a jail in Beijing, where they remained in solitary confinement for four years. The two were then taken before a military tribunal, where Downey, the “Chief Culprit,” and Fecteau, the “Assistant Chief Culprit,” were convicted of espionage.
Downey would receive a life sentence while Fecteau got 20 years.
This image from video from the CIA titled "Extraordinary Fidelity" and released to The Associated Press after request under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, shows from left, Richard Fecteau, CIA Director George Tenet, and John T. Downey with. The documentary about two agency officers, Fecteau and John T. Downey, who were captured in China on a secret mission in 1952 and held for years before their release, blends documentary footage and re-enactments to tell the story of the officers trying to recover a spy working for the CIA in the Manchuria region of northeastern China. The film, the only one of its kind in the spy agency's history, was intended only for internal release, but according to the CIA will come to the web for its public debut. (AP Photo/CIA)
The two would remain in jail for 20 years, learning about major events like the assassination of President Kennedy and the American entrance into the Vietnam War through heavily sanitized local Chinese news broadcasts.
Perhaps a harbinger of the high-level diplomatic trips we see today to release prisoners in places like North Korea and Iran, Fecteau was eventually released in 1971, following Henry Kissinger's secret mission to Beijing. Downey was released two years later, following a public appeal by President Nixon at a White House press briefing.
Besides the high production value of the documentary and the compelling personal stories of Downey and Fecteau, “Extraordinary Fidelity” gives an in-house look at the early days of the CIA as it underwent a transformation from paramilitary force to the modern intelligence gathering network it is today.
In addition, though at times simplified for editorial purposes, the depiction of the constantly evolving Sino-American relationship through the tumultuous 1950s-70s seen through the eyes of CIA agents operating during that time is truly intriguing.
Though the CIA’s release of the film came only after it was compelled by a petition under the Freedom of Information Act, the critical success the documentary has garnered has prompted the agency to consider releasing additional documentaries. Here’s hoping that this is one public prompting that the CIA acts upon.