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A feminist film epic and the real women of the CIA

By Peter Bergen, CNN National Security Analyst
December 13, 2012 -- Updated 2249 GMT (0649 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The new film "Zero Dark Thirty" highlights the role of female CIA analysts
  • Peter Bergen says the film gets it right: Women played important role in bin Laden hunt
  • The head of the CIA bin Laden unit, formed in 1995, relied on female analysts
  • Bergen: The CIA has undergone a major cultural shift

Editor's note: Peter Bergen is CNN's National Security Analyst and author of "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden, from 9/11 to Abbottabad," which this story, in part, draws upon.

(CNN) -- The star of the new film "Zero Dark Thirty" is a flame-haired female CIA analyst Maya (played by Jessica Chastain) who is obsessed with finding Osama bin Laden.

Maya sits in on brutal interrogations of al Qaeda detainees without a qualm and is constantly berating her male bosses to do more to find the leader of al Qaeda. And Maya is there at the end of the movie, identifying bin Laden's body shortly after a Navy SEAL team has killed him in Abbottabad in northern Pakistan.

Maya doesn't have a significant other or even much of a social life to speak of. The only friend she has is another female CIA analyst, Jessica, a CIA official of a slightly older generation who is almost as obsessed as Maya is about hunting down the leaders of al Qaeda.

Peter Bergen
Peter Bergen

When men come into Maya's life their only significance is to act as enablers to get what she wants: the head of Osama bin Laden. Or men are obstructions to that goal to be rolled over.

The CIA station chief in Pakistan won't give Maya the agents on the ground to follow the man she believes is bin Laden's courier, so she screams obscenities at him and threatens him with a congressional investigation. She gets what she wants.

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During a meeting with CIA director Leon Panetta, Panetta's top deputy tells his boss the chance of bin Laden being in Abbottabad is 60%. From the back of the room, Maya chimes in to say that the odds are actually 100%.

When Panetta, played with a sly charm by James Gandolfini, asks Maya whom exactly she is to make this assessment, she explains that she is the person who has found bin Laden, although she puts this in far more colorful language than can be reproduced here.

According to a Washington Post profile by Greg Miller, the CIA analyst who most resembles the real-life Maya is in her 30s and was in Pakistan as the hunt for bin Laden heated up in 2010. Just as Maya is portrayed in the film, she has sharp elbows and was singlemindedly focused on bringing the leader of al Qaeda to justice.

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"Zero Dark Thirty's" director, Kathryn Bigelow is, of course, the first woman to win an Oscar for best director, for the 2008 film "Hurt Locker." Previously, the stars of Bigelow's movies have been men playing roles that are quintessentially macho; U.S. Army bomb techs in Iraq in "Hurt Locker" or Soviet submariners during the Cold War in "K-19: The Widowmaker."

Now that she has placed a woman at the center of "Zero Dark Thirty," how faithfully does Bigelow's reworking of the war on terror as a feminist epic reflect the historical record?

Real operative of 'Zero Dark Thirty'
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Kathryn Bigelow talks 'Zero Dark Thirty'

In many ways, it fits it pretty well. The prominent role that women played in the hunt for bin Laden is reflective of the largest cultural shift at the CIA of the past two decades. The veteran CIA operative Glenn Carle, who is retired, recalls, "When I started, there were to my knowledge four senior operation officers who were females, and they had to be the toughest SOBs in the universe to survive. And the rest of the women were treated as sexual toys."

Now popular culture is catching up with reality. Not only does "Zero Dark Thirty" star a female CIA officer as the person who finally found bin Laden, but the award-winning fictional television series "Homeland" is built around the character of Carrie Mathison, played by Claire Danes as a determined CIA officer with a gift for finding clues to the activities of a terrorist leader.

Women and the bin Laden unit

From the founding of the bin Laden unit at CIA in December 1995 onward, female analysts played a key role in the hunt for al Qaeda's leaders.

The founder of that unit, Michael Scheuer, explains, "(Female analysts) seem to have an exceptional knack for detail, for seeing patterns and understanding relationships, and they also, quite frankly, spend a great deal less time telling war stories, chatting and going outside for cigarettes than the boys. If I could have put up a sign saying, 'No boys need apply,' I would've done it."

When Scheuer set up the bin Laden unit, Carle remembers the reaction among his fellow operations officers was, "What's his staff? It's all female. It was just widely discussed at the time that it's a bunch of chicks. So, the perspective was frankly condescending and dismissive. And Scheuer (and his staff) essentially were saying 'You guys need to listen to us; this is really serious. This is a big deal, and people are going to die.' And of course they were right."

Bergen: Did torture really net bin Laden?

Jennifer Matthews, the CIA officer who provides something of a model for "Jessica" in "Zero Dark Thirty," was one of Scheuer's top deputies, focused on the all-important Afghanistan-Pakistan border region.

In the new film \
In the new film "Zero Dark Thirty", Jessica Chastain plays a CIA analyst who is part of the team hunting Osama bin Laden.

Matthews' work was critical to the spring 2002 arrest of Abu Zubaydah, a key al Qaeda logistician, who provided the first information that it was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed who had masterminded the 9/11 attacks. This came as a complete surprise to the CIA, where Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had been largely seen as a peripheral figure in al Qaeda.

Like the Maya character in "Zero Dark Thirty," Matthews sat in on coercive interrogation sessions in secret CIA prisons overseas. According to "The Triple Agent", a deeply reported book by Washington Post reporter Joby Warrick, Matthews flew to Thailand for Abu Zubaydah's interrogation and witnessed him being waterboarded.

Matthews graduated from Cedarville University, a small Christian college in Ohio, in 1986 with a degree in broadcast journalism and joined the CIA just as the Cold War was ending. In the mid-1990s she was one of the first CIA officers who started worrying about the plans of a man named "Osama bin Laden."

A devout Christian and the mother of three children, Matthews knew Islamic history cold, and how al Qaeda believed it fit into that history, which made her a formidable interrogator of al Qaeda detainees, some of whom found the fact that she was a well-informed female particularly disconcerting.

First strategic warning

Another female intelligence analyst who spotted the threat from al Qaeda long before anyone else is Gina Bennett, who in August 1993, while working at the Bureau of Intelligence and Research inside the State Department, wrote a paper that was the first strategic warning about Bin Laden.

When bin Laden was expelled to Afghanistan in May 1996 from the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, Bennett also wrote a prescient analysis, warning, "His prolonged stay in Afghanistan — where hundreds of 'Arab Mujahidin' receive terrorist training and key extremist leaders often congregate — could prove more dangerous to U.S. interests in the long run than his three-year liaison with Khartoum."

In the years after the attacks on New York and Washington, Bennett helped draft key National Intelligence Estimates on the state of al Qaeda. Bennett is still at the CIA and has been publicly identified on a number of occasions, which is why her real name is used here.

After 9/11, women continued to play a key role in the hunt for bin Laden. In 2005, a CIA analyst named Rebecca (a pseudonym), who had worked the bin Laden "account" for years, wrote an important paper titled "Inroads" that would help guide the hunt in the years to come.

Given the absence of any real leads on bin Laden, how could you plausibly find him? she asked. Rebecca then came up with four "pillars" upon which the search had to be built. The first pillar was locating al Qaeda's leader through his courier network. The second was locating him through his family members, either those who might be with him or anyone in his family who might try to get in touch with him. The third was communications that he might have with what the CIA termed AQSL (al Qaeda senior leadership). The final pillar was tracking bin Laden's occasional outreach to the media.

These four pillars became the "grid" through which CIA analysts would from now on sift all the intelligence that had been gathered on al Qaeda that might be relevant to the hunt for bin Laden, and also helped to inform the collection of new intelligence.

A promising lead

An especially promising lead in the search for al Qaeda's leadership came four years after Rebecca wrote her memo and it came in the form of Humam al-Balawi, a Jordanian pediatrician in his early 30s who had become radicalized by the Iraq war and had subsequently become an important voice on militant jihadist websites.

Balawi was arrested in early 2009 by Jordan's General Intelligence Department, with which the CIA enjoyed exceptionally close relations. After offering the doctor the possibility of earning substantial sums of money, General Intelligence Department officials believed they had "turned" Balawi, who said he was willing to go to the tribal regions of Pakistan to spy on the Taliban and al Qaeda.

However, no one at the CIA had met Balawi, and pressure was mounting to get some agency eyes on him. That task fell to Jennifer Matthews, who had worked for the bin Laden unit almost from its inception. Matthews arranged for the Jordanian doctor to slip over the border from Pakistan's tribal areas to meet with her and a considerable team from the CIA in Khost in eastern Afghanistan.

Determined that this first meeting with this golden source be warm and friendly, Matthews did not have Balawi searched when he entered the CIA section of Forward Operating Base Chapman in Khost on December 30, 2009. She had even arranged for a cake to be made for Balawi, whose birthday had been only five days earlier.

But there was to be no opportunity to celebrate. As he met with the CIA team, the Jordanian doctor began muttering to himself in Arabic, reached inside his coat, and then detonated a bomb that killed Matthews, 45, and six other CIA officers and contractors who had gathered to meet him.

Balawi also died in the attack. The doctor from Jordan had not been spying on al Qaeda's leaders; he had, in fact, been recruited by them.

"Zero Dark Thirty" does a brilliant job of reconstructing this tragic episode.

In the movie, the death at the hands of al Qaeda of her friend Jessica, the character who is modeled to some degree on the real-life Jennifer Matthews, makes Maya all the more determined to track bin Laden down. She explains, "I believe I was spared so I could finish the job."

'Creative choices'

"Zero Dark Thirty" is a movie and that meant screenplay writer Mark Boal and Bigelow had to make what Boal told CNN were "creative choices." The key creative choice was to place a female CIA analyst at the center of the film. As we have seen from the historical record, it's a very defensible choice.

That said, there were scores of other analysts and operators at the CIA of both sexes who played important roles in the hunt for bin Laden. The founder of the bin Laden unit at the CIA was Michael Scheuer, and before 9/11 he pushed obsessively for operations that would eliminate bin Laden. So great was his zeal that Scheuer would regularly arrive at work at 3 a.m.

After 9/11, John (a pseudonym), a CIA analyst with the tall, lanky physique of the avid basketball player he had been in both high school and college, played a critical role in the hunt for bin Laden.

John joined the CIA's Counterterrorism Center in 2003 and stayed there, even though he could have taken promotions to go elsewhere, because he was fixated on finding bin Laden. He had pushed for more CIA drone strikes in the tribal regions of Pakistan in 2007, when he noticed that more Westerners were showing up there for terrorist training.

Like the Maya character in "Zero Dark Thirty," John was consistently certain that bin Laden was living in Abbottabad, but he put the odds at around 90% rather than the 100% that Maya puts it in the movie. John and other male CIA analysts barely feature in the film.

In the book "No Easy Day" by "Mark Owen," the Navy SEAL who went on the raid that killed bin Laden, he describes a CIA analyst he names "Jen" who corresponds to Maya. Like Maya, Jen is 100% sure bin Laden is living in Abbottabad.

In "Zero Dark Thirty," when the SEALs return to base with bin Laden's body, Maya calmly opens the body bag containing his remains and simply nods that it is, indeed, al Qaeda's leader.

But in real life, when the SEALs returned to base after bin Laden's death, they found "Jen" in the fetal position sobbing uncontrollably.

Sometimes the facts are even stranger and more interesting than the fictionalized version.

________

(Full disclosure: Along with other national security experts, as an unpaid adviser I screened an early cut of "Zero Dark Thirty." We advised that the torture scenes were overwrought. Al Qaeda detainees held at secret CIA prison sites overseas were certainly abused, but they were not beaten to a pulp, as was presented in this early cut. Screenwriter Mark Boal told CNN that as a result of this critique, some of the bloodier scenes were "toned down" in the final cut of the film. I also saw this final version of the film. Finally, HBO is making a theatrical release documentary that will be out in 2013 based on my book about the hunt for bin Laden entitled "Manhunt." This film features a number of the real-life female analysts and "targeters" at the CIA who hunted al Qaeda's leaders.)

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