Story of two CIA operatives captured in China in 1952 who were held for 20 years
May 3, 2007 8:15 PM   Subscribe

There may be some among us who can imagine 20 days in captivity; perhaps a fraction of those can imagine a full year deprived of liberty and most human contact. But 20 years? Downey and Fecteau have consistently sought to downplay their period of imprisonment; and neither has done what arguably too many former CIA officers do these days with far less justification: write a book. Downey has said that such a book would contain "500 blank pages," and Fecteau says the whole experience could be summed up by the word "boring."
Extraordinary Fidelity: Two CIA Prisoners in China, 1952–73 [secure link] by Nicholas Dujmovic, a CIA historian and a veteran intelligence analyst. Time article about Downey and Fecteau from 1954.
posted by Kattullus (26 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
If you don't want to click the CIA secure link, here's the same text on another site.
posted by Kattullus at 8:22 PM on May 3, 2007

Why would you not want to click on the CIA link? HTTPS isn't exactly some kind of nefarous NSA scheme.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 8:24 PM on May 3, 2007

It was meant as a bit of irony, y'know, the outsized reputation the CIA has. In retrospect I should have said: "In case you're not wearing any clothes and don't want the CIA to observe you through the secret camera hidden in every computer's caps lock light, here's the same text on another site." Subtlety gets you nowhere.

The last time I posted something from the US gubbernment, I got a lot of hassle for it. Also, for some reason posting a single https link is impossible.
posted by Kattullus at 8:38 PM on May 3, 2007

CIA link w/o PDF? wtf
posted by acro at 8:45 PM on May 3, 2007

Everyone knows that portable document format is an Iranian plot. Thought up by Khomeini himself.
posted by delmoi at 8:54 PM on May 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

"They were put on trial together in a secret military proceeding, the authorities apparently having been satisfied with the take from the interrogations." ... the windows were whitewashed and a dim light bulb burned constantly. ..."While the most intense questioning ended with their trial and sentencing in late 1954, both were subjected throughout to verbal insults and psychological abuse, particularly of a kind that Fecteau called “the whipsaw”: their captors would improve conditions—providing better food, access to books and magazines, or a luxury such as soap—only to take them away.
posted by acro at 9:03 PM on May 3, 2007

thanks Kattullus, some good stuff here... Those aerial pickup device things were featured in a documentary, perhaps China: Century of Revolution...
posted by acro at 9:06 PM on May 3, 2007

Yeah, acro, it was quite illuminating to consider this in light of Tenet's "We don't torture!" moment. This also gives insight into the Chinese approach to the EP-3 incident.

The operational model was the OSS experience in Europe during World War II, which assumed a cooperative captive population—a situation, as it turned out, that did not prevail in China.

An interesting omission in a CIA official history, as OSS had fairly extensive operations in Japanese-occupied China during WWII. One of their agents was John Birch. Yes, that John Birch^.

Here's Nixon's press conference where he reveals that Downey was CIA.
Hard to imagine similar comments from the incumbent.
posted by dhartung at 9:13 PM on May 3, 2007

For gratutous daily pdf linkage, see the secrecy news blog (Federation of American Scientists)
posted by acro at 9:22 PM on May 3, 2007

i opened the comments just to see if i was the only one who noticed the file is named "prisnors.html"
posted by paul_smatatoes at 9:59 PM on May 3, 2007

"They were put on trial together in a secret military proceeding, the authorities apparently having been satisfied with the take from the interrogations." ... the windows were whitewashed and a dim light bulb burned constantly.

Now if it were a bright light, it would have been torture.
posted by three blind mice at 10:06 PM on May 3, 2007

paul_smatatoes -- the url ( leads me to think that there's an 8-byte restriction on folder and file names. Kind of. Except for html_files, I guess.
posted by suedehead at 10:21 PM on May 3, 2007

I demand that China be closed immediately, and that all its prisoners receive their day in court.
posted by Brian James at 10:28 PM on May 3, 2007

If you close China, where will you manufacture your outrage?
posted by acro at 10:51 PM on May 3, 2007 [2 favorites]

Given the fact that neither talked a lot about their imprisonment, the CIA was very nice to them (pay grade increases, promotions, investments,etc.)
posted by pantsrobot at 11:01 PM on May 3, 2007

I saw this at the time; I remember thinking that China comes out of this looking pretty good.
A successful counter-espionage operation against a US service apparently so blinded by the ideology of anti-Communism that their thinking about the popular mood in China was wishful rather than clear. Despite being known enemy agents aiding armed insurgency against the regime, Fecteau and Downey weren't tortured or beaten post capture. Plenty of Chinese people were having a much worse time of it.
The bit about "brain-washing" is quite revealing; in part because when Fecteau says he used the ideology sessions to gain "insights into communist thinking and Chinese culture," it comes across as the first attempt to do that in the operation. yet the passage is still using language that presents the desire to have the men confess and so forth in terms which show little insight. Reading some Chinese commentary on this story (e.g.), it's often noted that the CIA made a number of critical misjudgements about China in the Cold War years, concerning her acquisition of the atomic bomb, the breakdown in Sino-Soviet relations and later the beginnings of the economic boom.
posted by Abiezer at 4:12 AM on May 4, 2007

I read this some time ago. I have nothing but thanks and admiration for these guys. Remarkable. As for the Chinese "looking pretty good," well, no.
posted by MarshallPoe at 5:14 AM on May 4, 2007

Simply amazing.
Great story.
posted by Dizzy at 8:24 AM on May 4, 2007

Fascinating read, thanks for posting this.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 9:32 AM on May 4, 2007

Abiezer, I was thinking about "brainwashing" as well. It's always struck me as interesting that this was only seen as something to be feared, i.e. a one-way technique that could only be used to make a communist agent out of a capitalist.

Also, regarding the misjudgements and the lack of insight into Chinese culture, it's remarkable that they didn't learn from Birch -- who was by all accounts both an effective missionary and an effective spy because of his sympathy for and understanding of the Chinese. What happened (other than Birch getting murdered) for that to break down?

I would dispute, though, that it was unreasonable to consider the possibility of exploiting divisions amongst the Chinese people themselves. The civil war was only over for a couple of years at that point, and the majority of the population had not grown up under Communism. It was reasonable to consider that the Nationalists were hated for reasons other than being anti-Communist. It's a little astonishing, though, that they parachuted teams into the country rather blindly. Tailor of Panama effect, perhaps.
posted by dhartung at 11:39 AM on May 4, 2007

I had a comment prepared on how interesting I found your John Birch links, dhartung, but then got summoned out for an evening.
He does seem a fascinating character, as were so many of that and earlier generation of missionaries; I only knew his name from the later society that took it.
You must be right about the reality of the possibility of a third force. I was interested in the north-east aspect as I am led to believe there was a significant anarchist movement in some areas there which might have made a fruitful partner.
I think what I meant was some kind of disjunct, perhaps between operational officers and analysts, as there's a '52 (I think) report that's been made public where the analysis is pretty spot-on about the cohesiveness and stability of the Communist regime.
I think a lot of foreign observers missed the patriotic goodwill New China was getting across a broad church. Look at the number of Chinese intellectuals who returned from abroad to take part in a rebuilding of the nation. It was probably possible to be quite the optimist as a liberal up to the Anti-Rightist movement or whatever in the mid-to-late fifties.
I'm not arguing that popular enthusiasm was as high as the Party claims either (though it was there); I suspect a lot of the general population were just happy to have any kind of stability after the appalling decades of warlordism and then Japanese invasion.
Anyway, here's a Chinese account of Birch's death I found earlier:
董去找兵站的一些士兵并要求见负责的军官。尽管士兵们比较好斗,但还是带他去见一个军官了。董告诉这个军官,他和伯奇的分队是属于空军第十四航空队的,但他们接到命令要去苏州。董听到这些人窃窃私语,“这儿又来了一批间谍,我们最好先解除他们的武装,等了 解事情真相后再把武器还给他们;要不就把他们全部杀了”。

  然后士兵们就带董回到伯奇那儿,他悄悄告诉了伯奇刚才所听到的。伯奇把手背在背后去见 共产党的军官,说话的态度非常无礼和尖刻。他还揪住了一个士兵的后脖领,于是共产党向 伯奇和董开枪,然后把他们扔到沟里去了。伯奇死了,但农民们救了董。日本人经过时把他 带到一个日本战地医院治疗,并发电报告诉汉口的中国将军整个事情的经过,后来,他们又把董转移到了一家汉口的普通医院。

  共产党俘虏了伯奇团队的其余成员。8月30日,魏德迈在赫尔利大使家中会见了毛泽东和周恩来,然后在重庆又一次会面。他强调了这一事件的严重性,要求共产党就此事做一份报告 ,并要求释放关押中的美国人。
"[Tung Chin-sheng] went to see some soldiers at the depot and asked to see their officer in charge. The soldiers were quite combative but did take him to see an officer. Tung told this officer that the detachment he and Birch were leading was part of the 14th Air Force, but they had received orders and intended to go to Suzhou. Tung overheard some of the men whispering, "We've got another bunch of spies here; best if we disarm them first. We can give them their weapons back once we've found out what's really going on; otherwise we could just kill the lot of them.
"The soldiers escorted Tung back to where Birch was. Tung quietly informed Birch of what he'd just overheard. Birch, his hands clasped behind his back, set off to see the Communist officer. Birch's demeanour in the ensuing conversation was exceptionally rude and caustic, and at one point he grabbed a soldier by the back of his neck. At this point the soldiers opened fire on Birch and Tung then threw the pair into a ditch. Birch died but Tung was saved by peasants. A passing group of Japanese took him to a Japanese field hospital for treatment and sent a telegram to Chinese generals in Hankou with an account of the entire epsode. They later had Tung transferred to a civilian hospital in Hankou.
"The Communists took the other members of Birch's detachment prisoner. On August 30, [General Albert] Wedemeyer met with Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai at the house of Patrick Hurley, the [US] ambassador to China. They met again later in Chongqing. Wedemeyer emphasised how seriously the incident was being taken and requested the the Communists provide a report on the matter and release the Americans they were detaining."
posted by Abiezer at 1:50 PM on May 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

I found this oral history link too whilst searching, for those interested in this period
posted by Abiezer at 2:08 PM on May 4, 2007

CIA?! My heart fair bleeds for these poor innocents in jail. May I piss on them?
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 6:02 PM on May 4, 2007

Downey has said that such a book would contain "500 blank pages," and Fecteau says the whole experience could be summed up by the word "boring."

Seems strange. Are these guys robots or Manchurian Candidates? Interesting story though. Thanks.
posted by nickyskye at 7:30 PM on May 4, 2007

It's an interesting story, but that CIA piece is (in places) an intentionally misleading piece of PR. It's main motivation seems to be to present the agency in the best possible light, and divert attention from the American diplomatic fecklessness that prevented the men being released in the '50s. There's a rather more sceptical take on American handling of the affair in this recent University of Maryland MA thesis [pdf].
posted by Sonny Jim at 4:28 AM on May 23, 2007

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