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CIA's most famous operative is a secret star

By Howard Kurtz, CNN
December 13, 2012 -- Updated 1259 GMT (2059 HKT)
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In "Zero Dark Thirty," Jessica Chastain plays a CIA operative apparently based on a real-life, though anonymous member, of the team that hunted Osama bin Laden.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Howard Kurtz: 'Maya' in new film on finding bin Laden is based on real, but anonymous, operative
  • He says questions are mounting about the CIA employee but she can't speak to the press
  • "Zero Dark Thirty" producers had unusual access to real story of bin Laden operation, he says
  • Kurtz: Giving filmmakers such access raises questions about way they portrayed the story

Editor's note: Howard Kurtz is the host of CNN's "Reliable Sources" and is Newsweek's Washington bureau chief. He is also a contributor to the website Daily Download.

(CNN) -- Maya is about to become the most famous CIA operative since Valerie Plame.

Except that's not her real name. We're not allowed to know her real name. Maya is the name of her character in the film "Zero Dark Thirty", which is already generating controversy for its depiction of the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

This has an only-in-Washington feel, a collision between our celebrity culture and the need to protect our spies from having their identities exposed. So the operative somehow becomes a movie star (played by Jessica Chastain) while remaining in the shadows.

Howard Kurtz
Howard Kurtz

Perhaps inevitably, questions are mounting about the CIA employee, her personality and her contacts with the filmmakers. And she can't properly defend herself because she's not allowed to talk to the press.

Thus it was that the Washington Post ran a highly unusual front-page profile of someone whose name is unknown. The woman was passed over for a promotion, the story says, and is an abrasive sort who e-mailed colleagues saying they didn't deserve to share in a prestigious award she received for her role in the mission. (By the way, what does it take to get a government promotion if helping eliminate the world's top terrorist doesn't qualify?)

Watch: Is Zero Dark Thirty coverage unfair to female CIA operative?

In the movie, Maya seems to have a messianic streak, saying after a female colleague was killed during an attack in Afghanistan: "I believe I was spared so I could finish the job."

Movie shines light on bin Laden sleuth
Kathryn Bigelow talks 'Zero Dark Thirty'
'Zero Dark Thirty' torture controversy
'Zero Dark Thirty' Hollywood premiere

Did the real-life Maya actually say that? Who knows? Kathryn Bigelow, the director, says she tried to approach the project as a journalist. But even the best docudramas tend to mix reconstructed facts with cinematic liberties.

'Zero Dark Thirty's' screenwriter on interrogation debate

Zero Dark Thirty is generating plenty of controversy, before its opening next week, because it spends roughly half an hour showing an al-Qaeda detainee being waterboarded, beaten and stripped naked in front of Maya in the quest for information on bin Laden's whereabouts. CNN analyst Peter Bergen says the film could provide "the misleading picture that coercive interrogation techniques used by the CIA on al Qaeda detainees -- such as waterboarding, physical abuse and sleep deprivation -- were essential to finding bin Laden."

It's hardly surprising that this has become the film's flash point. Liberals and conservatives in this country spent much of the Bush years arguing over whether waterboarding is torture and whether such coercive techniques, whatever they are called, helped or hurt in the war on terror.

Watch: Jon Stewart, media critic, takes on Fox News

From a filmmaker's point of view, torture scenes are obviously more exciting than a CIA staffer quietly piecing together clues. And the controversy will spur box-office sales. But Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal deny taking a stance about the role of torture in the pursuit of bin Laden. "This movie has been and will continue to be put in political boxes," Boal told The Wrap. "Before we even wrote it, some people said it was an Obama campaign commercial, which was preposterous. And now it's pro-torture, which is preposterous."

Watch: From Joe Scarborough to Rush Limbaugh, the conservative media meltdown

But the pro-Obama suggestion is, well, less than preposterous. Bigelow made this film with the help of officials at the Pentagon, CIA and White House who provided her with extraordinary access. President Obama makes only a brief appearance, but the movie highlights the biggest success of his first term, culminating a manhunt that began after the 9/11 attacks.

The film can only help burnish his reputation, and the cooperation began soon after one of the most classified missions in U.S. history. When a director gets that kind of official help, it raises troubling questions about the objectivity of those rendering the instant history.

Opinion: Did torture really net bin Laden?

In an e-mail to the Pentagon last year, CIA spokeswoman Marie Harf wrote: "I know we don't 'pick favorites' but it makes sense to get behind the winning horse. ... Mark and Kathryn's movie is going to be the first and the biggest. It's got the most money behind it, and two Oscar winners on board. It's just not a close call."

Watch: The Pope tweets -- how Twitter scours the globe for VIPs

Bigelow has every right to work whatever sources she can, and every administration tries to influence media coverage, but rarely do Hollywood and government work so obviously hand in glove.

As for Maya, we may never learn whether she liked her portrayal in "Zero Dark Thirty."

Valerie Plame was outed against her will; even if Maya's real-life counterpart decides to resign and go public, she would be prohibited by secrecy agreements from discussing her role in the mission. The most likely outcome is that the CIA operative who helped nab bin Laden will remain an unknown if flawed heroine.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Howard Kurtz.

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