HBO documentary focuses on women who searched for bin Laden

Holly Bailey
National Correspondent
The Lookout

In Kathryn Bigelow’s movie “Zero Dark Thirty,” Jessica Chastain played Maya, a young CIA operative whose stubborn pursuit of Osama bin Laden played a major role in the al-Qaida leader’s death.

The film garnered both awards (including a Golden Globe for Chastain) and controversy—largely because of graphic scenes depicting the CIA’s use of torture on suspected terrorists. But an undisputed—and to some, surprising—revelation in the film was its disclosure of the key role a female CIA agent played in the search for bin Laden.

Now a new documentary goes further—making clear it wasn’t just one female CIA operative relentlessly searching for bin Laden, as Bigelow’s dramatization suggests, but rather a whole team of women who began sounding the alarm about the al-Qaida leader almost a decade before the 9/11 attacks made bin Laden a household name.

“Manhunt,” which premieres Wednesday on HBO, tries to tell what director Greg Barker describes as “the real story” behind the 20-year hunt for bin Laden. It includes interviews with several members of the so-called Sisterhood, as the team of female analysts assigned to track bin Laden came to be known within the CIA.

Many of those interviewed, including retired agents Nada Bakos, Cindy Storer and Barbara Sude, speak on camera for the first time about their role in the bin Laden pursuit. And all, in some ways, appear to have inspired the female heroine of “Zero Dark Thirty,” from their headstrong efforts to convince colleagues that bin Laden was a serious threat to their fight to be taken seriously by male colleagues amid job pressures that came to dominate their lives.

Storer began tracking bin Laden in the early 1990s—“when al-Qaida was denying its existence even to its friends,” she says in the film. With tears in her eyes, she recalls how she was criticized in a performance review for “spending too much time working on bin Laden.”

“They said we were obsessed crusaders, overly emotional,” Storer recalls. The difference between her and her male colleagues, she says, is “Men throw chairs, women cry.” Still, she admits, “We were borderline obsessed, but I thought it was for a good reason.”

She recalls how she and her colleagues passed around large containers of Tums as they watched increasingly disturbing videos that suspected members of bin Laden’s network posted online—cataloging details in what was becoming a large dossier on al-Qaida.

“It wasn’t the sexiest job,” Bakos said in an interview with Yahoo! News. But she said it was a position that showed how important women are to the CIA. As analysts, she said, “women have patience and perseverance.” She added: “They weren’t looking for the sexy payoff. This wasn't a job people were being promoted to. They were really looking at it as in the defense of our country.”

Only after bin Laden began to be more explicit in his threat to attack the United States was their intelligence taken seriously. But despite clues analysts had that “something big” was coming, they weren’t able to prevent the 9/11 attacks. And the film details the guilt that Storer and her colleagues felt in the aftermath, as they trudged forward in their search.

Bakos, a veteran CIA analyst sent to Iraq at the height of the war to track down al-Qaida leaders there, seems to be a major inspiration for the Maya character in “Zero Dark Thirty”—though she said in an interview she never talked to Bigelow or anyone else associated with the film.

As part of her duties, Bakos was required to go on raids in search of her target, Abu Musab Zarqawi, then the leader of al-Qaida. It was a role that made her uncomfortable, as she recounts in the film, leading viewers to believe she, like Maya, struggled with seeing the sometimes brutal results of intelligence-gathering in the field.

But the film does not take a moral position on the CIA's interrogation efforts—and Bakos says that’s one reason she decided to speak out about her history as part of the bin Laden hunt. The film, she said, keeps it “politically agnostic and lets the audience decide for themselves” about the CIA’s tactics.

Bakos praised “Zero Dark Thirty” for portraying the “moments of intensity” that came during the CIA’s search for bin Laden and described the film’s depiction of “bureaucratic frustrations” as accurate. But she said Bigelow’s film did not fully communicate the “nuances of intelligence” that she and other analysts on the al-Qaida trail dealt with—and continue to deal with today. And she said it failed to focus on how much of the search was conducted by a "whole team of people" working together under the intense pressure of preventing another terrorist attack.

Asked what she hopes viewers will take away from “Manhunt,” Bakos said she hopes people will gain a better understanding about national security and how the CIA works.

“Intelligence is only as good as the information gathered," Bakos said. "There’s no crystal ball. And there’s no 100 percent. ... You cannot, 100 percent of the time, prevent or predict everything that will happen.”