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Hunt For Bin Laden More Than Just One Woman's Fight

Dec 16, 2012
Originally published on December 16, 2012 11:17 am

It is one of the most compelling real-life dramas in recent history — chronicled in documentaries, news stories and books — and now the hunt for Osama bin Laden is coming to the big screen.

Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal are the latest to embark on a Herculean task of summing up the more-than-a-decade-long CIA search for the leader of al-Qaida.

Bigelow and Boal were given access to key military and intelligence officials as part of their research for the film Zero Dark Thirty, which comes out in select theaters this week. In the course of those conversations, their main character took shape.

"When I realized at the heart of this 10-year odyssey was this woman, who had a kind of tenacity and a dedication and courage, I was excited to take it on," Bigelow told ABC News in an interview.

Who Is Maya?

Her name is Maya — at least in the film — and she is played by actress Jessica Chastain. According to the story Bigelow weaves, this young woman is the one who put the pieces together that would ultimately lead the CIA to that compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Other versions of this story have depicted a female CIA analyst behind the hunt for bin Laden as well, including a recent TV movie and a book by a former member of Navy SEAL Team Six (although in that book her name isn't Maya, it's Jen).

So was there a female CIA analyst at the center of this hunt?

"I think it's a literary device. It's not inaccurate, but it's not wholly accurate," says writer Peter Bergen, who himself has spent many years tracking bin Laden.

Bergen has written four books about al-Qaida, the most recent one being Manhunt, about the hunt for bin Laden. He told Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin that the lead analyst identified in his book is named John.

"The guy who was on the account from 2003 to May 1, 2011, when bin Laden was killed, and the guy who was always saying ... that bin Laden is living in the mysterious compound in Abbottabad — that guy is a guy, he's not a female," Bergen says.

That said, Bergen thinks the largest cultural shift that's happened in the CIA in the last couple of decades is the role women have played in leadership positions in the agency, operation roles, and particularly in the analytical role that was very useful in finding bin Laden.

The bin Laden unit at the CIA was founded in December 1995. Bergen says initially it was less than a dozen people, mostly women, and that was the point.

"[Women] don't tell war stories. They're more focused and they get the job done," he says. "At the time, counter-terrorism was regarded as sort of a backwater. So it was a small group and it was a group that was regarded as being somewhat overly interested in bin Laden, almost maniacally so."

A Team Effort Over Years

Robert Grenier, who was in the CIA's clandestine service for 27 years and director of the CIA's counterterrorism center from late 2004 to early 2006, says that kind of focus on a single mission and target can take an emotional toll.

"There is a great feeling of personal responsibility — that if there is a lead that's missed, if there's some connection that we miss, that the consequences could be disastrous," Grenier tells Martin. "It's something which simply takes over your entire life to an extent that probably a lot of people don't understand."

The CIA says the hunt for bin Laden was a classic team effort and that the people involved worked tirelessly for years, never sought attention and have earned the right to remain in the shadows.

Bergen says that it's hard to know how many analysts who were part of those initial teams were still there at the end — the day the Navy SEALs raided the compound in Abbottabad.

"There were some high-fives and champagne bottles," he says, "but it's not like the death of bin Laden is the elimination of the al-Qaida threat. People are still working on finding No. 2."

And if there is a woman like Maya, she may be one of them.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It is one of the most compelling real-life dramas in recent history, retold in documentaries, news stories, books, and now the hunt for Osama bin Laden is coming to the big screen.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ZERO DARK THIRTY")

MARTIN: Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal are the latest to embark on a Herculean task - summing up the more-than-a-decade-long search for the leader of al-Qaida. Bigelow and Boal were given access to key military and intelligence officials as part of their research for the film "Zero Dark Thirty." It comes out in select theaters this week. And in the course of those conversations their main character took shape. Here's Bigelow talking with ABC News.

KATHRYN BIGELOW: When I realized at the heart of this 10-year odyssey was this woman, who had a kind of tenacity and a dedication and courage, I was excited to take it on.

MARTIN: Her name is Maya, at least in the film. And according to the story Bigelow weaves, this young woman is the one who put the pieces together that would ultimately lead the CIA to that compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Here's a clip from the film.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ZERO DARK THIRTY")

MARTIN: Other versions of this story have also depicted a female CIA analyst behind the hunt for bin Laden. There was a recent TV movie and a book by a former member of Navy SEAL Team Six. Although in that book her name isn't Maya, it's Jen.

So was there a female CIA analyst at the center of this search? We asked someone who himself has spent many years tracking Osama bin Laden.

PETER BERGEN: My name is Peter Bergen. I've written four books about al-Qaida. The most recent one is "Manhunt," about the hunt for bin Laden.

MARTIN: Bergen's take on the whole female CIA analyst who saves the day narrative?

BERGEN: I think it's a literary device. It's not inaccurate but it's not wholly accurate. In fact, the lead analyst who's identified in my book is John. The guy who was on what they call The Account from 2003 till May 1, 2011, when Bin Laden was killed, and the guy who was always saying, I'm at a 90 percent certainty that Bin Laden is living in this mysterious compound in Abbottabad.

That guy is a guy. I mean, he's not a female. That said, I think the largest cultural shift that's happened at the CIA in the last couple of decades is the role women have played, in either leadership positions in the agency, operation role, and particularly in the analytical role that was very useful in finding Bin Laden.

MARTIN: The bin Laden unit at the CIA was founded in December of 1995. And Bergen says initially it was less than a dozen people - mostly women, and that was the point.

BERGEN: Women don't take cigarette breaks, they don't tell war stories, they're more focused, they get the job done. And at the time, counter-terrorism was regarded as sort of a backwater. So it was a small group and it was a group that was regarded as being somewhat overly interested in Bin Laden, you know, almost maniacally so.

MARTIN: Here's another scene from "Zero Dark Thirty." This is where Maya, the CIA analyst, who is played by Jessica Chastain, is confronting her station chief in Pakistan about a possible lead.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ZERO DARK THIRTY")

ROBERT GRENIER: My name is Robert Grenier and I was in the Clandestine Service for 27 years. I was the director of Counterterrorism Center from late 2004 to early 2006.

MARTIN: I'm wondering if you were aware of any kind of stress that this created? Was there any kind of emotional toll that it took on these folks to be so preoccupied by this one mission for so long,

GRENIER: Oh surely, there is a great feeling of personal responsibility. That if, God forbid, there's a lead that's missed, if there's some connection that we miss, that the consequences could be disastrous. So yes, there are a great many people who at regular intervals, I'm sure, have woken up in a cold sweat at 3 in the morning wondering did I make a mistake today? Is there something else that I could've done?

MARTIN: Grenier says that same dedication complicated the mission in some ways.

GRENIER: There's always the risk and a very real risk that people who are myopically focused on a single target, and are obsessively pursuing that as they should, are simply not going to have the perspective or, in some cases, the judgment that needs to be brought to bear when the time comes to make the decisions, as to what leads are going to be pursued and which ones are going to be acted upon.

It's something which simply takes over your entire life to an extent that a lot of people probably don't fully understand.

MARTIN: We asked the CIA if there was one woman at the center of this hunt, and they told us it was a classic team effort and that the people involved worked tirelessly for years, never sought attention and have, quote, "earned the right to remain in the shadows."

Peter Bergen told us that it's hard to know how many analysts who were part of those initial teams were there at the end, the day the Navy SEALs raided the compound in Abbottabad.

BERGEN: There were some high-fives and champagne bottles that were open. But yeah, it's not like the death of Bin Laden is the elimination of the al-Qaida threat. I think that yeah, people are still working on trying to find number two.

MARTIN: And if there is a woman like Maya, she may be one of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.