Hit & Run

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

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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.