Skip to main content

How True is Zero Dark Thirty? A Former Operative Weighs In

Despite debates over its depiction of torture, Zero Dark Thirty became the most-watched movie in America this week, and looks to be heading for another strong weekend. How reliable the film’s portrait? Does it give an accurate picture of how the CIA anti-terrorism efforts really work? Nada Bakos, who spearheaded the CIA’s Zarqawi Operations team from 2004-2006 as a targeting officer, weighs in. Prior to the operations position, Bakos served as an analyst for the agency primarily in the Counterterrorism Center, and was a member of the team charged with defining the relationship between Iraq, al Qaeda, and 9/11.
  • Author:
  • Updated:
Jessica Chastain portrays the CIA analyst Maya in the new movie "Zero Dark Thirty." (PHOTO: SONY PICTURES)

Jessica Chastain portrays the CIA analyst Maya in the new movie "Zero Dark Thirty." (PHOTO: SONY PICTURES)

Nada Bakos


When Pacific Standard called me to ask if I would write about Zero Dark Thirty, I still had not decided whether I wanted to see it. I was leaning toward no. People who work in intelligence don't generally see movies about it. You can enjoy them only once you've been out of the game for a while, and then only if you don’t take it too seriously. I watch Homeland. It’s fun, because it’s a fantasy.

Zero Dark Thirty occupied an odd space. It’s not ridiculous enough to allow complete suspension of disbelief. I get that Hollywood needs to sell tickets, but it’s not accurate enough to resonate with my experiences as a CIA analyst and later, a targeting officer in the clandestine service.

The movie’s ‘Maya’ appears to be an amalgamation of women I knew and worked with, some of whom go back further in the story than I do. Gina BennettJennifer Matthews, and Barbara Sude were part of the initial group working in the Counterterrorism Center as targeters and analysts before 9/11. After the attacks, I and other officers transferred from other departments. Many were just joining the agency, like Maya at the movie’s beginning.

I could relate to Maya as a mid-level officer, being asked to "backbench" at a briefing—you’re briefing the guy who has to brief the guy—while she knows it’s her analysis that brought everyone together in the room. Supervisors sell this as "top cover" for the lower-level officer, and there is some truth to that. It’s easier for established officers to take a hit over a bad decision than for a new officer, whose career could end on an early miscall. When I became a supervisor, I did the same thing, and dodged my share of clipboards.

But for all the similarities between my career and fictional Maya’s, the movie’s version of how counter-terrorism works didn’t resonate with me. And not just the parts involving torture that has become such a major point of contention around the film. The whole story the film tells, both in terms of the time scale and the type of human effort it depicts, is likely to create some important misconceptions for the public about how our national security system really works.

I get that this is a Hollywood movie. Hollywood will gravitate to a film that is digestible and, ultimately, profitable. And depicting the reality of national security is challenging: much of the information is secret, and a lot of it is just not dramatic. Reading hundreds of reports and crafting papers is just not that exciting. People applaud the team that's on the court when the buzzer goes off.

But I was surprised at what I saw. We've got the go-it-alone gunslinger, Maya, whose past is murky and future is vague. She's Clint Eastwood's “Man With No Name,” re-imagined as a twenty-something woman. She gathers up a posse, heads out, and kills the bad guy. Then she leaves. Because she's not actually Clint Eastwood, she cries a little. You expect to see someone chasing the C-130 shouting, “Shane, come back!”

In reality, cowboys don’t work as targeters. (But they do ride with a large posse that helps with more than the gunfights. This 10-year hunt involved hundreds of people with several people at the core.) More often than not, effective intelligence—including the effort to find Osama bin Laden—is the result of sustained, collective efforts that spark moments of intuition among a pool of experts and processes, not individual hunches that compel monumental effort.

Saying otherwise misrepresents not only how the hunt for bin Laden worked, but how the whole system works.


Gina Bennett, a veteran CIA analyst, wrote the first strategic warning about al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden while at the State Department in 1993. Telling the whole story would be a looooong movie.

After 9/11, the actual process involved reconciling vast bodies of information. You’re talking about thousands upon thousands of megabytes to collate, analyze, parse, analyze again, and define gaps.

“It’s not connecting dots, it’s more like a jigsaw puzzle,” said Cindy Storer, an ex-CIA analyst, one of the group that goes back before 9/11. I talked to her by phone when the movie came out.

“Pieces fall from the sky and add to the pile the analyst already has,” she said. “There is no picture, no edge pieces. And not all of the pieces fit in the puzzle.”

So even if Maya existed, and was committed and had the right instincts, one person is just not able to assimilate enough of the information to crack the case.

The movie deals with this by showing Maya chasing a digestible amount of data, just one lead: a suspicious courier, whose nom de guerre she must match to his real name. Two data points. She cracks the case that way, and off go the helicopters.

The actual hunt for bin Laden turned on thousands of data points. According to a press article, a CIA analyst referred to publicly as “Rebecca” wrote a paper called Inroads, describing four pillars to finding bin Laden: his courier network; his family members; communications; and bin Laden’s outreach to media. “Couriers were tangential to all of the other information we were following, we had been focusing on the courier network for a long time, it was not new,” said the former head of the bin Laden unit at the CIA, Marty Martin.

That sounds like bickering on a technical point. But the movie’s version isn’t just a difference in scale, or some paring back from thousands of plot points for the sake of streamlining a script. Focusing on one lead, and one analyst, has the effect of turning the hunt for bin Laden, and our understanding of national security, into a Sherlock Holmes story.

The stark misconception that really stood out was the lack of humanity in the portrayal of one character, who appears based on the late Jennifer Matthews, a CIA officer killed in a suicide bombing in Khost, Afghanistan. The irreverence of the character and almost flippant attitude toward analysis was anathema to who Jennifer was. Jennifer was smart, intense, observant and persistent.

And yes there were men involved in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

The movie also alludes to arguments over priorities for CTC—that there were, over time, things more important than finding bin Laden—but presents them as distractions for Maya. Bureaucratic roadblocks, not reasoned prioritizing of threats. Those who joined the ranks of the CIA, the intelligence community, and the military were intensely passionate about helping making sure that our parents, our siblings, our children, our friends, and our neighbors would not be the victims of an attack on U.S. soil again. “Besides the hunt, there were threats, and leads on other individuals,” Martin said. The movie is about one thing, the hunt for bin Laden. In reality, there was more going on.

In the film, none of the agency characters were empathetic or exhibited much human emotion at all. They were emotionally callous, cold, unwavering at the sight of brutal beatings and nonplussed by intense situations. Or they quickly became like that.

The group of intelligence officers I worked with was not a homogenous whole. We were diverse in heritage, schooling, religious and political beliefs, a typical cross-section of the American public. We were not emotionally callous. Once, in the course of my duties, I had to watch the tape of a beheading. The inhumanity of man always leaves a mark on those forced to witness it.

The torture scenes depicted in the movie were horrific and very difficult to watch.

Instead of treating the movie as a depiction of reality, I hope we treat it as a point of departure. We should be asking questions like, “What should our expectation be of our national security apparatus, especially in terms of how it conducts itself in a time of war?” Or, “How might we re-imagine or rebuild our counter-terrorism strategy so that it better balances individual rights and reasonable precautions moving forward?”

The filmmakers say, instead, they had more modest goals. They just wanted to depict the effort to locate bin Laden, and portray some of the professionals who did it.

The reality of the profession is long hours of menial work that don't often fit into standard narratives. You make the best choices you can, about very serious matters, with imperfect information. You live with those choices for the rest of your life.