The documentary promising to set the record straight on the mission to kill
Osama bin Laden finally aired on Wednesday night, but the identity of the fabled female CIA officer at the center of
the manhunt remains elusive.
The documentary Manhunt, which debuted on HBO, makes the oft-cited argument that the "Maya"
character, played by Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty, is merely an amalgamation of
multiple real-life CIA officers. While most insiders agree that Maya is a
composite character, they also contend that one woman in particular most
embodies Maya's identity as depicted in the movie.
To refute this position is to ignore the preponderance of
first-person accounts and deeply reported articles on the subject since the May
2011 raid. For example, the Navy SEALs who've spoken out about their experience during the raid all describe a singular headstrong female CIA agent. In Matt Bissonette's No Easy Day, the CIA analyst depicted fits the exact mold of Maya, who loudly proclaimed in Zero Dark
Thirty that she was
"100 percent" certain of bin Laden's presence in Abbottabad and
worked intimately with SEAL Team 6.
"The CIA analyst who was the main force behind tracking the target to
Abbottabad said she was one hundred percent certain he was there," wrote
Bissonnette. "She had been our go-to analyst on all intelligence questions
regarding the target."
Bissonnette's fellow SEAL Team 6 member, the
so-called "Shooter," also corroborated Zero Dark Thirty's account of Maya in his
2013 interview with Esquire. While quibbling about a number of innaccuracies in the movie, he praised the depiction of Maya.
The portrayal of the chief CIA human bloodhound,
"Maya," based on a real woman whose iron-willed assurance about the
compound and its residents moved a government to action, was
"awesome" says the Shooter. "They made her a tough woman, which
And then there's the Washington Post's Greg Miller, one of the
best-sourced CIA reporters in Washington, who didn't hedge at all regarding
the singularity of the Maya character, reporting in December that Maya is a
30-something CIA agent with a distinctive dose of moxie:
The female officer, who is in her 30s, is the
model for the main character in "Zero Dark Thirty,"a film that chronicles
the decade-long hunt for the al-Qaeda chief....
Colleagues said the on-screen depiction captures
the woman's dedication and combative temperament.
"She's not Miss Congeniality, but that's not
going to find Osama bin Laden," said a former CIA associate, who added that the
attention from filmmakers sent waves of envy through the agency's ranks.
Miller's reporting even delved into the CIA
officer's post-bin Laden work life:
She has sparred with CIA colleagues over credit
for the bin Laden mission. After being given a prestigious award for her work,
she sent an e-mail to dozens of other recipients saying they didn't deserve to
share her accolades, current and former officials said.
The woman has also come under scrutiny for her
contacts with filmmakers and others about the bin Laden mission, part of a
broader internal inquiry into the agency's cooperation on the new movie and
other projects, former officials said.
The CIA agent's continued anonymity is not for lack of
trying on the part of the media. Just this week, reporter Marc Ambinder speculated that Maya is a cross
between former CIA analyst Nada Bakos (right) and a "second-generation American" who
was assigned to the manhunt after 2004. "Bakos looks strikingly like Jessica
Chastain's ‘Maya,'" wrote Ambinder. "And Bakos was responsible ... for
ferreting out several promising leads."
But when contacted by Foreign Policy, Bakos
rejected Ambinder's speculation. "I have never met Bigelow or Boal," she said,
referencing reports that Maya met with Zero
Dark Thirty director Mark Boal. "I also left the Agency before the Abbottabad
In all likelihood, the composite of Maya is
probably split up into two phases. The first phase involved multiple female
officers who pursued bin Laden in the aftermath of 9/11. Cindy
Storer, a CIA officer, suggested this to the Daily Beast in January. "The fact of the matter is that one person is
not around that long, doing that much," she noted. The second phase may have involved just
one CIA officer during a much more recent stretch of time prior to the 2011 raid. That would do much
to explain why the SEAL Team 6 members and Greg Miller all have one particular
female agent in mind. Of course, we'll never know for sure -- until "Maya" tells
her story once and for all.