Was the Hero of Zero Dark Thirty in Reality a Screw-Up? And Does Anybody Care?


I am shocked--SHOCKED!--at the possibility Hollywood got a story wrong.
Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty's plot represents the CIA's current "have it both ways" response about its enhanced interrogation (torture) program in the effort to track down Osama bin Laden. The movie shows both enhanced interrogation methods working to extract information from detainees, but it also acknowledges the CIA's ability to get info even when the methods are prohibited.

The Senate's recent torture report challenges the defensive part of this narrative, arguing, using the CIA's own documentation, that enhanced interrogation didn't get any useful intelligence that they hadn't gotten through other channels or methods. The report found that the CIA often used torture as a way to make sure the detainees didn't have any additional information they were holding back.

The Senate report has blacked out the names of CIA officials throughout its 500-page executive summary. But the information that does appear in the in the summary has enabled some media outlets to put together the identity of the woman who inspired the character of Maya in the movie. In reality, far from being the hero, she's one of the CIA agents responsible from preventing the sharing of information about the 9/11 plane hijackers with the FBI prior to the terrorist attack. She's also allegedly a central figure in the detention and torture of an innocent German incorrectly thought to be a terrorist.

Jane Mayer at The New Yorker and NBC News both wrote about the analyst's appearance in the Senate's report, which claims she misrepresented the effectiveness of enhanced interrogations. But at the CIA's request, NBC News protected her identity.

Then, of course, along come journalists like Glenn Greenwald, Peter Maass, and Marcy Wheeler, who aren't interested in protecting the CIA. They've "outed" the CIA analyst as Alfreda Frances Bikowsky. Her name has been referenced in other news reports connected to the hunt for Osama bin Laden and she even has her own Wikipedia page (first created in July 2013).

Over at The Intercept, Greenwald and Maass have hunted down and aggregated a lot of reporting over the years about Bikowsky. A cynic might think there are reasons for trying to conceal her identity other than to protect her from retaliation from al Qaeda:

Back in 2011, John Cook, the outgoing editor of The Intercept, wrote an article at Gawker, based on the reporting of Ray Nowosielski and John Duffy, naming Bikowsky and pointing to extensive evidence showing that she "has a long (if pseudonymous) history of being associated with some of the agency's most disastrous boondoggles," including a key role in the CIA's pre-9/11 failure to notify the FBI that two known al Qaeda operatives had entered the country.

Earlier that year, the Associated Press reported that a "hard-charging CIA analyst [who] had pushed the agency into one of the biggest diplomatic embarrassments of the U.S. war on terrorism" (the rendering for torture of the innocent El-Masri) was repeatedly promoted. Despite internal recommendations that she be punished, the AP reported that she instead "has risen to one of the premier jobs in the CIA's Counterterrorism Center."

Read more here. The Senate's torture report has already slid right off most Americans' radar screens, so it's probably unlikely much will come of Bikowsky's outing.

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  1. I don’t know whether the movie was accurate or not, but the interrogation of the prisoner in that movie was MOST DEFINITELY torture.

    1. I think the movie was a complete piece of misinformation.

      The Pakinistanis had to know where Bin Ladin was. There was nothing they could do about it. There are a lot of people in both Pakistan and in the Pakistani government who supported Bin Ladin. Outing him or killing him would have been an internal political disaster. His being there was also a huge international problem. Are they they going to admit to the world they had been sheltering the world’s most wanted terrorist all of these years?

      Bin Ladin was an embarrassment whom the Pakistanis wanted to get rid of but couldn’t. The solution was to slowly feed the US intelligence services information that lead them to his whereabouts so that the US could then kill him and the Pakistanis could both claim ignorance of his presence and also avoid all responsibility for his death.

      So one of two things happened. Either the Pakistanis leaked information and manipulated the CIA into finding Bin Ladin on their own without realizing it was the Pakistani government that had outed him or the Pakistani government and high elements of the CIA worked together to create this cover story to ensure no one knew exactly how Bin Ladin was found.

      Either way, the movie and all of the mythology surrounding the finding of Bin Ladin is I think likely complete bullshit.

      1. Let’s not forget, the administration gave the film-makers unprecedented access to active duty special forces operatives, and the movie was scheduled to be released in October 2012 just weeks before the election.

  2. . . . . naming Bikowsky and pointing to extensive evidence showing that she “has a long (if pseudonymous) history of being associated with some of the agency’s most disastrous boondoggles,” including a key role in the CIA’s pre-9/11 failure to notify the FBI that two known al Qaeda operatives had entered the country.

    The perfect role model for the Obama campaign advertisement otherwise know as Zero Dark Thirty.

    1. I have no love of the CIA, but my bet is that when you look at them and other agencies like Police, FBI and NSA, you will find a lot of fault when viewing events with the benefit of hindsight. These are agencies tending to work with a lot of unknowns. Trying to get a signal out of the massive amounts of noise will more often than not be a failure. It is easy to look back at all that disparate evidence and insist that they should have made the right connections.

      The lesson that libertarians should take from this is that we should expect these agencies to fail regularly because in this line of work, even a .100 batting average may be the best you can expect. We shouldn’t allow these agencies to insist that with JUST A LITTLE MORE DATA they can measurably improve things.

  3. I am shocked – shocked I tell you! – to discover that the CIA kept promoting a fuckup and pretending that their failures were successes.

  4. It occurred to me, after hearing about Stephen Colbert’s on-air sucking of Obama’s dick, that I would kill to see Greenwald interview Obama. Oh, and thank god that Colbert is finally off the air.

    1. Uh, he’s still replacing Letterman on the Late Show. Unless you’re trying to stealthily imply that his run will be short-lived?

      1. No, I just didn’t know about that. Aye dios mio.

        1. It won’t be the same: he is retiring the Colbert persona.

          My guess is that he is going to bomb badly; Letterman had an edgy self-making persona he presented to his audience.

          Colbert has nothing like that. He will have to come up with a new persona that builds a large enough audience out of Colbert fans who accept the change + Letterman fans who decide not to ditch the show despite the change.

          My guess is that both pools will be small. My guess is that Late Night TV is a dinosaur on its way out as its audience gets older and dies off.

          1. He’s retiring the sideways insulting/mocking right wing persona. His very much cut from the same cloth as Stewart/Oliver. If we’re lucky, his show will be a politically watered down The Daily Show. If we’re not, it’ll just be another smugfest.

          2. Dies off,,, thanks for the encouragement….

      2. Ouch, my nuts. I’d rather read another cop persecution-complex article than that little tidbit.

  5. Trapani also argued that the Senate report is “based only upon one side’s perspective on this story” and that an article about Bikowsky “doesn’t require naming a person who’s never had a chance to rebut what’s been said about them.” When The Intercept asked for the CIA’s rebuttal?or Bikowsky’s?to the critical portrayal of her in the Senate report, Trapani declined to offer one.

    Because it’s all true.

    1. Well of course a racist rapist would say that.

  6. There was a book written in the late 1990s by some top shelf Ivy League White girl who had gone to work for the CIA about her time as a field agent. The author of the book meant the book to be an indictment of the CIA because it showed how bureaucratic and ineffective it was. And the book was certainly that. The book also was unintentionally an indictment of the CIA’s hiring practices. The woman who wrote the book was a complete knave and mediocrity. She had absolutely no business being hired by the CIA or sent out as a field agent. She got hired because she was a woman and the CIA has always been a good old boys and girls club of Ivy League idiots. And she was just the latest in the long line of idiots.

    The CIA has never had one legitimate success in its entire existence. I can’t think of a single major world event in the last 70 years that the CIA didn’t completely fail to predict or was utterly convinced of the opposite. Meanwhile, they have left a legacy of one failed covert action after another and untold damage to US interests abroad. They have done all of that damage while never producing a single piece of useful intelligence to US leaders.

    The whole agency needs to be torn down and a new intelligence agency built in its place.

    1. I agree that the CIA has been as bad as pretty much everyone in predicting major black swan events.

      That said, there are some great Cold War era stories showing how the CIA managed some great intelligence coups against the Soviets. We know that the CIA pretty much ran the show (from the US side) in making Afghanistan the Soviet Vietnam. We also know they managed to steal a lot if key tech information during the CW.

      But, again, the larger point is that the CIA SHOULD be a scaled back precision tool- operating in specific theaters and getting very specific information in limited situations. It should not have the power it does, because its ability to fulfill the role as a global strategic weapon is just not there- indeed, it is probably too much to expect of any agency.

      1. The CIA managed a few intelligence coups. But overall the KGB kicked its ass in the cold war. For every decent intelligence coupe we have, the Soviets had ten or fifteen. The US never had an inside agent in the USSR as damaging as the Walkers or Aims or Hanson was to the US.

        1. Was the KGB pretty much one of the best intelligence apparati of all time? Probably. Hell, for a time it is believed they were running MI6.

          But here’s the problem: They were part of an authoritarian state. They had nearly total control over communications in the entire Soviet Bloc. Their agents, populace and high ranking officials enjoyed none of the Constitutional protections that we had on our side- an advantage that they exploited ruthlessly during the Cold War. You can’t expect any Intelligence Agency that is part of a Western, freedom-protecting country to ever measure up to that.

          As I said above, I’m no lover of Intelligence Agencies. That said, “We” expect the CIA and NSA to be as effective as the Secret Police. We expect them to know the intent of a couple guys living in caves and to foresee- even influence major world events. Well that will never happen if we don’t give them powers approaching those enjoyed by totalitarian regimes.

          These guys are told it is their mission to do what the KGB does, and they start coming back with the types of requests that brought us the Patriot Act. They ask to break down the “walls” that prevent them from spying on Citizens. They perform torture. They attempt to monitor every communication into and out of the country and- if we aren’t careful- will move onto the stuff inside our country.

          Half the problem is our collective desire to hold these agencies to a standard impossible to achieve without major losses of liberty.

          1. That is a fair point about the advantages of being a police state.

            The problem is that the CIA never tried to do its job of providing intelligence. It from the start was a half assed covert operations agency. I would kill it and the NSA off. Leave their heads stuffed and mounted as a warning to all future intelligence agencies.

            I would then create a single intelligence agency whose single mission is collecting and analyzing intelligence for national level authorities; no covert action allowed. If the President feels the need to do covert ops, let him use the Special Forces for it.

            1. The problem with that is a lot of intelligence comes from covert activities. One of the biggest complaints about the CIA before 9/11 was their de-emphasis of field personnel.

              Again, I think it is a question of expectations. If we expect the CIA and NSA to give us very specific intelligence on very specific problems around the world, they are probably up to the task- even after a massive purge of their ranks. If we expect them to prevent a 9/11-style attack that probably included no more than two dozen people fully in the know, they need a much larger mandate.

              Another piece of the puzzle is obviously our foreign policy. If we weren’t so involved with every aspect of world affairs, we wouldn’t need field offices in every corner of the globe, paying informants, bringing back intel, and then hiring rafts of analysts to sift through the garbage.

              If you look at the Israeli intel network, you see that they have a very razor sharp focus on regional players and local threats. They are at best uninterested with China’s capabilities in the south seas, or Russia’s latest plans in the caucuses. And so they have a much smaller set of data to care about. Of course they are not perfect, not as liberal as I like, and Israel has a much smaller global footprint. But they are nevertheless an important example of how limiting the scope of their mission simplifies things.

  7. I’m not sure what this piece was actually about.

    Stripping out the ‘someone wrote a story about other people’s stories about other people’s stories and put it on Gawker’-level of ‘reporting’… it sounds like

    “Person who helped Kill Bin Laden = Let’s throw them under a bus ASAP because we can

    I appreciate Gawker is nothing but “monkeys throwing shit” – this story seems to be about some really interesting angles on the activities of other shit-throwing-monkeys

    What did we learn here? ‘Torture is bad’? This is news.

    While i don’t doubt people in the CIA are self-serving dicks: what is the purpose of picking an individual who helped catch and kill Osama Bin Laden and dragging their name through the mud… because what? Because it helps perpetuate the story about the awful horrible torture report? The bus doesn’t have enough people under it?

    1. It doesn’t seem like she did help catch Bin Ladin. She seems to be a total incompetent who has done nothing but fuck up and move up via self promotion.

      1. It doesn’t seem like she did help catch Bin Ladin[sp]‘?

        Are you suggesting he’s still alive?

        1. No. I am saying this woman had very little role in actually catching him.

          1. Then it would seem your beef would be with Kathryn Ann Bigelow and that movie producers who suggested that “some woman” did…

            Given that this person isn’t exactly running around telling everyone she meets that “she killed Bin Laden”, i’m not sure what is being ‘debunked’ here other than some bullshit movie that no one considered ‘documentary evidence’ in the first place.

            1. What is being shown here is that this woman is an incompetent agent yet was promoted anyway. That is the problem not the movie.

              1. Incompetent at what?

                Last I checked, Bin Laden was dead.

                1. Sure he is Gilmore. That just means the guy who shot him was a good shot. The fact remains that the torture this woman approved of doing didn’t produce any information that helped us find Bin Ladin and none of the work she did seems to have resulting in much of any contribution to the mission beyond torturing random Muslims who happened to be policed up by the US.

                  Just because Bin Ladin is dead doesn’t mean this woman had anything to do with it.

                  1. ‘ the torture this woman approved’

                    The president approved all the targets for torture – not some CIA analyst.

                    If the question is about whether or not torture was ‘useful’, that’s a separate issue entirely from this particular individual’s role in the pursuit of bin laden.

                    none of the work she did seems to have resulting in much of any contribution to the mission beyond torturing random Muslims who happened to be policed up by the US.”

                    That’s your entirely-imagined take away from an article in Gawker that merely calls her a person connected to 2 details that people later decided were ‘mistakes’ = failing to tell the FBI about people they were tracking pre-9/11, and the rendition of a guy who turned out to be a case of false identity.

                    Nothing in any of the reporting says anything more about their competence or lack thereof in relation to the catching of bin laden.

                    “Just because Bin Ladin is dead doesn’t mean this woman had anything to do with it.”

                    As noted = WTF do you really know about it or this person *at all*, other than the freaking movie and some gab circulated by lefty muckrakers?

                    You seem to think Scott’s “Betteridge Headline*” amounts to some actual detailed criticism, rather than speculation.

                    (*i.e. a story with a headline asking a question the story fails to actually prove)

  8. including a key role in the CIA’s pre-9/11 failure to notify the FBI that two known al Qaeda operatives had entered the country

    I thought I read that this did not happen because of Jaime Gorelick’s “wall of separation” between the two, meant to protect civil liberties.

    1. Yes and no. Georelick would say that the CIA misinterpreted the rule and that they should have handed over the information. The CIA would say the wall prevented them from doing it and it wasn’t their fault.

      They both are in a sense right and both equally responsible for the failure. There is a legitimate place for the wall. If I am an American citizen in the US and the CIA can by spying on Columbia figure out that I am smuggling drugs and tip off the police, we effectively don’t have a 4th Amendment anymore. So we need a wall. The problem is Goerlich made the wall cover all information, not just information related to US persons. These clowns were not US persons, so the wall shouldn’t have applied to them but thanks to Gorelich it did.

    2. Even with the wall, the 911 perpetrators had all overstayed or violated the terms of their VISAs. There were legal reasons to have them deported. They just were not deported because thousands of people overstay their VISAs and INS didn’t have the resources to go after them all and had no reason to know these guys were dangerous. That said, the CIA could have called the fucking INS and said, “hey, these people have overstayed their VISAs and need to be deported immediately” consistent with the wall. They didn’t have to say why or charge them with terrorism. They could have just told the INS to do their jobs. But the CIA didn’t do that because the CIA are assholes who refuse to work with anyone. So INS didn’t know to deport these guys and didn’t and then were blamed for not doing so.

      1. The CIA didnt call INS because they knew what the terrorists were planning and did everything in their power to protect them and make sure their plans were successful. And now look, surprise, the CIA has more power and money than ever before! Funny how things work out like that…

    3. Fancy talk like that doesn’t help throw this person under a bus. ‘Systemic failure’? That sounds made-up. I blame some woman.

      1. No Gilmore, actual people do fuck up and cause bad things to happen. It is not always the system.

        1. Because what i said was “All mistakes are always the fault of ‘the system”?

          What I said that looking at the actual details would lead you to believe that one person couldn’t be responsible for this particular incident

  9. Despite internal recommendations that she be punished, the AP reported that she instead “has risen to one of the premier jobs in the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center.”

    What were they supposed to do, give that job to some white guy?

    1. Women are more vicious and desiring of revenge and torture than men.

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  11. FWIW…it doesn’t seem like the person identified here (Bikowski) is actually even supposed to be the “actual person” represented in the film Zero Dark Thirty.

    Both the New Yorker and the NBC story say – with zero attribution – that Bikowski was “one of many” that inspired the character.

    New Yorker = “She was also, in part, the model for the lead character in “Zero Dark Thirty.”

    NBC = “The expert ? one of several female CIA employees on whom “Maya,” the lead character in the movie “Zero Dark Thirty,” was based…””

    In addition – while Bikowski helped run the bin laden unit before 9/11… it doesnt seem she had anything to do with the Bin Laden unit after 2005

    “Sometime after the USS Cole bombing in October 2000, she was promoted to Deputy Chief of the Bin Laden Issue Station.[8] By March 2003, she had been appointed Chief of the station.[7](p273) The station was closed in late 2005.[9]” By 2008 she had a different job entirely.

    Note – there were a half dozen women in the unit that eventually tracked and ran Bin Laden down. it doesn’t even appear that she was one of them.

    the person portrayed in the film as being the protegee of Jennifer Lynne Matthews (killed in Khost in 2009) is actually claimed to be a ‘real person‘ and not an amalgam.

    1. From that last link =

      “Maya is widely assumed to be based on a real CIA agent referred to as “Jen” in No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission that Killed Osama Bin Laden. In the book, former Navy SEAL Matt Bissonnette, who published the book under the name “Mark Owen,” says that Jen was “recruited by the agency out of college,” had been “working on the Bin Laden task force” for five years, and that “she’d worked to put all the pieces together” in tracking bin Laden to Abbottabad, Pakistan. She was, he says, “our go-to analyst on all intelligence questions regarding the target.”

      The “five years” thing means that she’d probably not even joined the Bin Laden group until 2003 or after. The ‘recruited out of college’ would make her significantly younger than Bikowski.

      Nada Bakos – who was herself an actual ‘targeting officer’ – comments on the film here, and notes that the character is an amalgam…

      In short – it would seem there’s very little actual connection between Bikowsky and the real person who was on the job of targeting Bin Laden as late as 2009-2011

  12. No surprise that shes a…how should i put this…person of the Non-Christian, Non-Muslim, Non-Buddhist, Non-Hindu, Non-Shinto persuasion. Probably slept her way to the top as well.

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