John Thomas Downey

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Person.png John Thomas Downey  Rdf-entity.pngRdf-icon.png
(spook, judge)
John Thomas Downey.jpg
BornApril 19, 1930
DiedNovember 17, 2014 (Age 84)
Alma materChoate Rosemary Hall, Yale College
Central Intelligence Agency officer who was captured in China in November 1952 and imprisoned until March 1973.

John Thomas Downey was a Central Intelligence Agency operative who was captured on a covert paramilitary mission in China in November 1952 and was held captive until March 1973. After release, he studied law and became a Connecticut Superior Court Judge.

Early life

Originally from Wallingford, Connecticut,[1] Downey graduated from the Choate School (now Choate Rosemary Hall) and in 1951 Yale College.[2]

CIA career

He joined the Central Intelligence Agency soon after Yale and became one of two CIA Paramilitary Officers in the Special Activities Division (the other was Richard Fecteau).

After the outbreak of the Korean War, Downey was appointed in a secret program called "Third Force", whose task was to create a network of resistance by parachuting small groups of anti-communist overseas Chinese into China, for subsequent connections with discontented generals and local units. The purpose of the operation was to destabilize the new government of Mao Zedong and distract him from participation in the conflict.

Fecteau, Downey and fellow aircraft crew were trying to pick up an anti-communist Chinese agent when they came under fire in the sky over Manchuria on November 29, 1952.

Initially, all of those on the aircraft were presumed by the U.S. Government to be lost. Downey was 22 years old and Fecteau was 25 at the time of their capture. The pilots were killed.[3]

Two years later, the men saw each other for the first time, and their survival was first confirmed to the world outside of China, when they were secretly put on trial and convicted of espionage. These developments drew strong protests from the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. As their status as CIA officers was a secret, the U.S. Government did not acknowledge their true affiliation for much of the period of their incarceration, saying they were civilian United States Army employees, which necessarily complicated the efforts of U.S. officials, family members and others to press for their release, or even to make their plight widely known.[3]

The CIA's Studies in Intelligence, vol. 50, no. 4, 2006 included an article describing the mission, the capture, and, ultimately, the release of agents Downey and Fecteau.[4] A related video documentary was placed on the CIA website.[5][6]


In 1957, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai proposed the release of prisoners in exchange for allowing American journalists to visit China, but US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles called it "blackmail" and used its control over the issuance of passports to prevent any trip to China.[7].

Jack's mother tried for years to secure her son's release, but the process was complicated by the fact that the US government did not want to acknowledge its real role in the operation that led to Downey's capture.[8]

Thanks to efforts by Downey's mother, Mary Downey, and President Richard Nixon, Downey was released 21 years into his life sentence, on March 12, 1973,[3] the year after Nixon's visit to China. (Fecteau had been released in December 1971 after serving nineteen years of a 20-year sentence.) The backdrop was President Nixon's early 1970s' historic diplomatic opening to China. Three years later, at age 46, Downey graduated from Harvard Law School, ultimately becoming a judge.[3]


Downey and his Chinese-born wife were married in 1975; they had a son. Fecteau returned to his alma mater as assistant athletic director at Boston University, retiring in 1989.[3][4]

In late June 1998, CIA Director George Tenet awarded Downey and Fecteau the CIA Director's Medal for their service to their country in a private ceremony.[4]