Almost everything written about “Zero Dark Thirty" has focused on whether its version of torture’s A-to-B roll in getting Osama Bin Laden is accurate. (It’s not, by most authoritative accounts.)
But what’s gone missing is its fairly realistic portrayal of the sheer number of people, not to mention time and patience, involved in carrying out clandestine human intelligence operations, not just the ones focused on Bin Laden.
The standard Hollywood depiction pits one brave (or reckless) spy against two vast and formidable enemies. First is the evil, ruthless opposition, from James Bond’s SMERSH to the real KGB, Hezbollah and al-Qaeda. The second enemy, often no less venal, is the slow-witted, or corrupt headquarters bureaucrat.
ZD30 has that, too, in spades, as “Maya,” the obsessed counterterrorism analyst portrayed by Jessica Chastain, battles feckless bosses as much as al Qaeda.
But what’s gone unremarked is its largely accurate suggestion of the sheer number of people involved in the tactical operations that led up to the Navy SEALs' kill mission on May 1, 2011.
Even that is understated. One gets a whiff of it in the scenes depicting a CIA surveillance team struggling to find Bin Laden’s courier in Pakistan. And behind that one senses real-life legions of technical specialists, eavesdroppers, linguists and other analysts, besides Maya, employed to fix, decipher and make sense of al Qaeda communications and personnel.
But what could not be portrayed in the flick is the sheer number of CIA case officers across the globe, from Southeast Asia to Northern Europe, with orders to recruit informants who might have scraps of information critical to mapping al Qaeda. Likewise unseen is the corps of support agents necessary for a single case officer’s meetings in the field, from countersurveillance teams to safe house managers.
No two-hour movie, moreover, can adequately portray the time, patience and skill required to spot, recruit, train and manage a local spy, who may or may not turn out to have valuable, reliable, first-hand information about the enemy.
Nor is it so easy to recruit just casual eyes and ears among the locals in the bazaars of Pakistan, such as those in ZD30 on the lookout for Bin Laden’s courier on the roads around Abbottabad. Only a CIA (or military intelligence) operational training manual can accurately reveal the complexity of such operations.
It’s a pity they’re classified.
That the CIA -- nay, the entire U.S. intelligence apparatus -- failed for a decade to get Bin Laden is beside the point here. Ditto for the fact that incompetent CIA managers made dreadful mistakes. Indeed, moviegoers, caught up in ZD30’s intense drama, might well forget that it took U.S. intelligence a decade to hone in on Bin Laden’s greatest vulnerability--his repeated communications with the outside world via audio and videotapes.
For sure, it does boggle the mind that CIA evidently failed to get a fix on Bin Laden’s courier well before the 9/11 attacks, after the evil genius had already quarterbacked the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Africa.
Still, acknowledgement, if not respect, must be paid to the cast of thousands behind the eventual, if belated liquidation of Bin Laden.
And ZD30 does offer a taste of that.
ADDENDUM: For a review of ZD30 by intelligence officer with first-hand experience in the hunt for Bin Laden, see this excellent piece by former CIA analyst Nada Bakos.