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In ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’ she’s the hero; in real lie, CIA agent’s career is more compicated

By , Monday, December 10, 8:18 PM

She was a real-life heroine of the CIA hunt for Osama bin Laden,
a headstrong young operative whose work tracking the al-Qaeda leader
serves as the dramatic core of a Hollywood film set to premiere next
week.

Her CIA career has followed a more problematic script, however, since bin Laden was killed.

The
operative, who remains undercover, was passed over for a promotion that
many in the CIA thought would be impossible to withhold from someone
who played such a key role in one of the most successful operations in
agency history.

She has sparred with CIA colleagues over credit
for the bin Laden mission. After being given a prestigious award for her
work, she sent an e-mail to dozens of other recipients saying they
didn’t deserve to share her accolades, current and former officials
said.

The woman has also come under scrutiny for her contacts with
filmmakers and others about the bin Laden mission, part of a broader
internal inquiry into the agency’s cooperation on the new movie and
other projects, former officials said.

Her defenders say the
operative has been treated unfairly, and even her critics acknowledge
that her contributions to the bin Laden hunt were crucial. But the
developments have cast a cloud over a career that is about to be bathed
in the sort of cinematic glow ordinarily reserved for fictional
Hollywood spies.

The female officer, who is in her 30s, is the model for the main character in “Zero Dark Thirty,”a film that chronicles the decade-long hunt for the al-Qaeda chief and that critics are describing as an Academy Award front-runner even before its Dec. 19 release.

The
character Maya, which is not the CIA operative’s real name, is
portrayed as a gifted operative who spent years pursuing her conviction
that al-Qaeda’s courier network would lead to bin Laden, a conviction
that proved correct.

At one point in the film, after a female
colleague is killed in an attack on a CIA compound in Afghanistan, Maya
describes her purpose in near-messianic terms: “I believe I was spared
so I could finish the job.”

Colleagues said the on-screen depiction captures the woman’s dedication and combative temperament.

“She’s
not Miss Congeniality, but that’s not going to find Osama bin Laden,”
said a former CIA associate, who added that the attention from
filmmakers sent waves of envy through the agency’s ranks.

“The agency is a funny place, very insular,” the former official said. “It’s like middle-schoolers with clearances.”

The
woman is not allowed to talk to journalists, and the CIA declined to
answer questions about her, except to stress that the bin Laden mission
involved an extensive team. “Over the course of a decade, hundreds of
analysts, operators and many others played key roles in the hunt,” said
agency spokeswoman Jennifer Youngblood.

Friction over mission, movie

 

The internal frictions are an unseemly aspect of the ongoing
fallout from a mission that is otherwise regarded as one of the signal
successes in CIA history.

The movie has been a source of
controversy since it was revealed that the filmmakers — including
director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal — were given extensive access to officials at the White House, the Pentagon and the CIA.

Members
of Congress have called for investigations into whether classified
information was shared. The movie’s release was delayed amid criticism
that it amounted to a reelection ad for President Obama.

The
film’s publicity materials say that Maya “is based on a real person,”
but the filmmakers declined to elaborate. U.S. officials acknowledged
that Boal met with Maya’s real-life counterpart and other CIA officers,
typically in the presence of someone from the agency’s public affairs
office. The character is played by Jessica Chastain.

Her real-life
counterpart joined the agency before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks,
officials said, and served as a targeter — a position that involves
finding targets to recruit as spies or for lethal drone strikes — in the
CIA’s station in Islamabad, Pakistan.

She was in that country
when the search for bin Laden, after years of being moribund, suddenly
heated up. After Obama took office, CIA operatives reexamined several
potential trails, including al-Qaeda’s use of couriers to hand-deliver messages to and from bin Laden.

“After
this went right, there were a lot of people trying to take credit,” the
former intelligence official said. But the female targeter “was one of
the people from very early on pushing this” courier approach.

Lashing out in an e-mail

 

This spring, she was among a handful of employees given the
agency’s Distinguished Intelligence Medal, its highest honor except for
those recognizing people who have come under direct fire. But when
dozens of others were given lesser awards, the female officer lashed
out.

“She hit ‘reply all’ ” to an e-mail announcement of the
awards, a second former CIA official said. The thrust of her message,
the former official said, was: “You guys tried to obstruct me. You
fought me. Only I deserve the award.”

Over the past year, she was
denied a promotion that would have raised her civil service rank from
GS-13 to GS-14, bringing an additional $16,000 in annual pay.

Officials
said the woman was given a cash bonus for her work on the bin Laden
mission and has since moved on to a new counterterrorism assignment.
They declined to say why the promotion was blocked.

The move stunned the woman’s former associates, despite her reputation for clashing with colleagues.

“Do
you know how many CIA officers are jerks?” the former official said.
“If that was a disqualifier, the whole National Clandestine Service
would be gone.”

The targeter’s contacts with the “Zero Dark
Thirty” filmmakers have also been examined as part of an inquiry,
apparently by the CIA inspector general, into the information that
agency officials shared with outsiders about the bin Laden raid.

Internal
e-mails released this year under Freedom of Information Act requests
showed how the agency set up repeated visits for Boal, allowing him to
tour the “vault” where the raid was planned and even see a mock-up of
the Abbottabad compound.

Former CIA officials said agency
enthusiasm for the film has been tempered as details about it have
surfaced, including the fact that the movie opens with a harrowing
waterboarding scene in a secret CIA prison.

 

 

Joby Warrick contributed to this report.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/in-zero-dark-thirty-shes-the-hero-in-real-life-cia-agents-career-is-more-complicated/2012/12/10/cedc227e-42dd-11e2-9648-a2c323a991d6_story.html?hpid=z1

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