The star of the new film "Zero Dark Thirty" is a flame-haired female CIA analyst Maya (played by Jessica Chastain) who is obsessed with finding Osama bin Laden.
Maya sits in on brutal interrogations of al Qaeda detainees without a qualm and is constantly berating her male bosses to do more to find the leader of al Qaeda. And Maya is there at the end of the movie, identifying bin Laden's body shortly after a Navy SEAL team has killed him in Abbottabad in northern Pakistan.
Maya doesn't have a significant other or even much of a social life to speak of. The only friend she has is another female CIA analyst, Jessica, a CIA official of a slightly older generation who is almost as obsessed as Maya is about hunting down the leaders of al Qaeda.
When men come into Maya's life their only significance is to act as enablers to get what she wants: the head of Osama bin Laden. Or men are obstructions to that goal to be rolled over.
The CIA station chief in Pakistan won't give Maya the agents on the ground to follow the man she believes is bin Laden's courier, so she screams obscenities at him and threatens him with a congressional investigation. She gets what she wants.
During a meeting with CIA director Leon Panetta, Panetta's top deputy tells his boss the chance of bin Laden being in Abbottabad is 60%. From the back of the room, Maya chimes in to say that the odds are actually 100%.
When Panetta, played with a sly charm by James Gandolfini, asks Maya whom exactly she is to make this assessment, she explains that she is the person who has found bin Laden, although she puts this in far more colorful language than can be reproduced here.
According to a Washington Post profile by Greg Miller, the CIA analyst who most resembles the real-life Maya is in her 30s and was in Pakistan as the hunt for bin Laden heated up in 2010. Just as Maya is portrayed in the film, she has sharp elbows and was singlemindedly focused on bringing the leader of al Qaeda to justice.
"Zero Dark Thirty's" director, Kathryn Bigelow is, of course, the first woman to win an Oscar for best director, for the 2008 film "Hurt Locker." Previously, the stars of Bigelow's movies have been men playing roles that are quintessentially macho; U.S. Army bomb techs in Iraq in "Hurt Locker" or Soviet submariners during the Cold War in "K-19: The Widowmaker."
Now that she has placed a woman at the center of "Zero Dark Thirty," how faithfully does Bigelow's reworking of the war on terror as a feminist epic reflect the historical record?
In many ways, it fits it pretty well. The prominent role that women played in the hunt for bin Laden is reflective of the largest cultural shift at the CIA of the past two decades. The veteran CIA operative Glenn Carle, who is retired, recalls, "When I started, there were to my knowledge four senior operation officers who were females, and they had to be the toughest SOBs in the universe to survive. And the rest of the women were treated as sexual toys."
Now popular culture is catching up with reality. Not only does "Zero Dark Thirty" star a female CIA officer as the person who finally found bin Laden, but the award-winning fictional television series "Homeland" is built around the character of Carrie Mathison, played by Claire Danes as a determined CIA officer with a gift for finding clues to the activities of a terrorist leader.
Women and the bin Laden unit
From the founding of the bin Laden unit at CIA in December 1995 onward, female analysts played a key role in the hunt for al Qaeda's leaders.
The founder of that unit, Michael Scheuer, explains, "(Female analysts) seem to have an exceptional knack for detail, for seeing patterns and understanding relationships, and they also, quite frankly, spend a great deal less time telling war stories, chatting and going outside for cigarettes than the boys. If I could have put up a sign saying, 'No boys need apply,' I would've done it."
When Scheuer set up the bin Laden unit, Carle remembers the reaction among his fellow operations officers was, "What's his staff? It's all female. It was just widely discussed at the time that it's a bunch of chicks. So, the perspective was frankly condescending and dismissive. And Scheuer (and his staff) essentially were saying 'You guys need to listen to us; this is really serious. This is a big deal, and people are going to die.' And of course they were right."
Jennifer Matthews, the CIA officer who provides something of a model for "Jessica" in "Zero Dark Thirty," was one of Scheuer's top deputies, focused on the all-important Afghanistan-Pakistan border region.
Matthews' work was critical to the spring 2002 arrest of Abu Zubaydah, a key al Qaeda logistician, who provided the first information that it was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed who had masterminded the 9/11 attacks. This came as a complete surprise to the CIA, where Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had been largely seen as a peripheral figure in al Qaeda.
Like the Maya character in "Zero Dark Thirty," Matthews sat in on coercive interrogation sessions in secret CIA prisons overseas. According to "The Triple Agent", a deeply reported book by Washington Post reporter Joby Warrick, Matthews flew to Thailand for Abu Zubaydah's interrogation and witnessed him being waterboarded.
Matthews graduated from Cedarville University, a small Christian college in Ohio, in 1986 with a degree in broadcast journalism and joined the CIA just as the Cold War was ending. In the mid-1990s she was one of the first CIA officers who started worrying about the plans of a man named "Osama bin Laden."
A devout Christian and the mother of three children, Matthews knew Islamic history cold, and how al Qaeda believed it fit into that history, which made her a formidable interrogator of al Qaeda detainees, some of whom found the fact that she was a well-informed female particularly disconcerting.
First strategic warning
Another female intelligence analyst who spotted the threat from al Qaeda long before anyone else is Gina Bennett, who in August 1993, while working at the Bureau of Intelligence and Research inside the State Department, wrote a paper that was the first strategic warning about Bin Ladin.
When bin Laden was expelled to Afghanistan in May 1996 from the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, Bennett also wrote a prescient analysis, warning, "His prolonged stay in Afghanistan --- where hundreds of 'Arab Mujahidin' receive terrorist training and key extremist leaders often congregate --- could prove more dangerous to U.S. interests in the long run than his three-year liaison with Khartoum."
In the years after the attacks on New York and Washington, Bennett helped draft key National Intelligence Estimates on the state of al Qaeda. Bennett is still at the CIA and has been publicly identified on a number of occasions, which is why her real name is used here.