Detail by painful detail, the CIA is coming to grips with one of the most devastating episodes in its history, a botched cloak-and-dagger flight into China that stole two decades of freedom from a pair of fresh-faced American operatives and cost the lives of their two pilots.
In opening up about the 1952 debacle, the CIA is finding ways to use it as a teaching tool. Mistakes of the past can serve as cautionary tales for today's spies and paramilitary officers taking on al-Qaida and other terrorist targets.
At the center of the story are two eager CIA paramilitary officers on their first overseas assignment, John T. Downey of New Britain, Conn., and Richard G. Fecteau, of Lynn, Mass., whose plane was shot from the night sky in a Chinese ambush.
The mission was quickly smothered in U.S. government denials, sealed in official secrecy and consigned to the darkest corner of the spy agency's vault of unpleasant affairs.