Jack Downey, CIA agent - obituary

Publié le par The Telegraph

Jack Downey, CIA agent - obituary

CIA agent who was captured by the Chinese and spent 20 years in prison.

Jack Downey arrivng in Hong Kong on his release in March 1973.

Jack Downey arrivng in Hong Kong on his release in March 1973.

Jack Downey , who has died aged 84, was one of two CIA operatives shot down during a botched cloak-and-dagger flight into China in November 1952; they were captured and held in prison for nearly two decades while the US government denied that they were spies.

In June 1952, at the height of the Korean War, the US had parachuted five ethnic Chinese agents into Manchuria on a covert mission to link up with disaffected communist generals, with the aim of distracting Mao Tse-tung’s new government from the war which Chinese forces had entered two years earlier.

The team made radio contact in November, reporting that they wanted one of their number to be picked up by “air snatch” — a risky procedure which involved flying an aircraft at low altitude and hooking a line connected to a harness in which the agent was strapped.

On November 29 the 22-year-old Downey and his colleague Richard Fecteau, 24, boarded an unmarked transport plane and took off from a base in South Korea. They did not know it, but their mission was doomed . The Chinese agents had been captured and forced to send the message. As the American plane swooped in over the pick-up zone, it came under heavy fire and crashed. The two pilots were killed, but Downey and Fecteau survived and were soon captured. The pair were taken to Mukden, the largest city in Manchuria, where they were shackled and locked in separate cells.

When the transport plane failed to return, the CIA concocted a story that Downey and Fecteau were civilians who had been aboard a “routine flight” lost in the sea west of Japan. Their families were told they were dead. The two Americans, meanwhile, were undergoing interrogation. Prevented from sleeping or bathing, made to wear leg irons, and grilled for up to 24 hours at a time, eventually both confessed to being CIA agents.

The men were moved to Beijing, and finally, two years after their capture, put on trial before a secret military tribunal. Downey received a life sentence; Fecteau was given 20 years. It was only when the Chinese state news agency announced their convictions that the CIA realised they were still alive .

So began years of incarceration, during which Downey and Fecteau lived in freezing cells, usually in solitary confinement, on a diet of maggoty rice and vegetables. Although the US refused to bargain with the Chinese communist government, Washington exerted pressure for the release of the men, egged on by Downey’s mother, Mary .

By the late 1960s relations between China and the US were beginning to thaw. In 1971 Henry Kissinger made his secret visit to Beijing, and in December that year Fecteau was suddenly released. Downey was set free 15 months later after Nixon admitted that the two men had indeed been CIA agents.

In 1983, Downey observed that they might have been released in 1957 had it not been for Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’s “overwhelming fear of communism”, after it was revealed that China had offered to release him and other imprisoned Americans if the United States would agree to an exchange of journalists. Dulles had refused .

John Downey was born on April 19 1930 at New Britain, Connecticut, and studied at Yale before joining the CIA. The mission that led to his incarceration was his first and last for the agency. Both Downey and Fecteau retired from the CIA after their release, and refused lucrative offers to sell their stories. Downey enrolled at Harvard Law School, married a Chinese woman, and finally became a judge in Connecticut .

It was not until 2007 that the agency decided to reveal the full truth, admitting that the unit chief who had approved the botched mission had ignored a warning that the Chinese agent team had been compromised soon after its arrival in Manchuria. Last year Downey was awarded the CIA’s Distinguished Intelligence Cross.

He is survived by his wife, Audrey, and by their son.

Jack Downey, born April 19 1930, died November 17 2014 

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