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Sundance 2013: Ex-CIA officers say 'Zero Dark's' Maya doesn't exist

January 24, 2013|By Steven Zeitchik

PARK CITY, Utah -- Since opening in theaters last month, the Osama bin Laden manhunt film “Zero Dark Thirty” has intrigued audiences with its inside look at how CIA officers do their jobs.

But the employees of the agency who tracked the Al Qaeda leader say that while they understand the need for dramatic license, the  Kathryn Bigelow film gets a number of details about their professional and personal lives wrong.

“The individual hunches [are what] came through on ‘Zero Dark,’ and that’s not exactly how it happens,” said Nada Bakos, who spent years as a CIA target officer, gathering intelligence that helped lead to the elimination of suspected terrorists. “[Field officers] are collecting information, we’re analyzing it all, and it’s coming together in a bigger puzzle.”

SUNDANCE 2013: Portraits by The Times

Bakos and two other former officers were speaking to The Times from the Sundance Film Festival -- you can watch video excerpts of the interview above -- where they’re the subject of the festival entry “Manhunt,” a look at the real people who led the two-decade effort to track and try to bring down Al Qaeda.

Greg Barker’s film, which will play on HBO in May, draws from written sources such as Peter Bergin’s eponymous book as well as extensive field research.

“I wanted to make a film that was told in the first person, by the real people, the full story of the hunt for Bin Laden,” said Barker, who devised the idea the night Bin Laden was killed. “There’s a story [there] that's ... emblematic of what we’d been through as a nation over the past decade."

Among the info Barker lays out is how it was a group of women who, as analyst Cindy Storer says in the film, were "borderline obsessed” with finding Bin Laden, even as many of the men had thrown their hands up and moved on to other issues.

One of those women is the late Jennifer Matthews, the officer played by Jennifer Ehle in "Zero Dark" who is the victim of a suicide bombing in Afghanistan from an asset meeting gone wrong.

Marty Martin, a longtime field officer who also appears in “Manhunt,” said the depiction of Matthews as a bubbly, even naïve agent who wanted to bake a cake for the asset before the meeting is off-point.

“We have some issues with that,” he said. “She was a very serious individual. She wasn’t as flippant as the movie portrayed.”

That leaves the biggest question about the film: Is Maya, the officer played by Jessica Chastain, real?

Chastain has said she is. “I believe Maya exists,” she told The Times in December. But Bakos disagrees.

VIDEO GUIDE: Sundance 2013

“There’s not any one person who was sitting in Islamabad for 10 years only focused on that little piece,” she said. “There were tons of people involved with this. I see a compilation of people I knew and worked with in Maya.” (Among those people, she said, is herself.)

Martin said that while the basic contours have been written about, he appreciated “Manhunt” because “it brings home the whole human story.”

All three have left the agency -- Martin and Bakos do consulting, while Storer teaches courses on U.S. intelligence techniques at Coastal Carolina College. “What I want people to take away from the movie is that anytime something bad happens, they don't right away blame an officer overseas,” Storer said.

As for that other CIA film out there, Martin acknowledged there were some things it got right. “The thematic stuff is in the ballpark,” he said of "Zero Dark Thirty."

And on one controversial point, the former officers stood with the film and against several U.S. senators: Martin and Storer both said they did think harsh interrogation techniques helped lead to Bin Laden’s death.

“The bottom line is that the enhanced interrogation techniques, they contributed as part of the overall program,” Martin said. “You won’t see me back away from saying it wasn’t effective in producing very actionable intelligence.”

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