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Spy Secrets of 'Zero Dark Thirty'

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

PARIS -- The realities highlighted by the Oscar-nominated film "Zero Dark Thirty," which detailed the operation that ended with the killing of Osama bin Laden, don't begin and end with the debate over what some call "torture" as a means of obtaining intelligence. That's just the only issue from the film that politicians and the media have glommed onto. More than anything else, "Zero Dark Thirty" is one of the rare films that accurately portrays the realities and frustrations of working in espionage and intelligence.


I think it's safe to say that tactics like loud music, sleep deprivation and water-boarding would at least be more effective than asking an unlawful enemy combatant obsessed with killing you to politely fill you in on any adverse operations. The question of whether an activity constitutes torture really depends on your own definition of it: your point of reference, personal preferences and level of tolerance. Western military and intelligence personnel are trained to withstand enemy interrogation tactics. It's just one of those things that go with the territory when you choose warfare as a profession, particularly when you engage as a freelance guerrilla unassociated with a nation-state covered by the Geneva Conventions' protections.

But "Zero Dark Thirty" depicts many other realities about intelligence work that have passed under the radar.

One of the reasons why most films about intelligence and espionage are unrealistic is because in movies, officers are allowed to take initiative. They get an idea, maybe run it by a colleague on the down-low or muse about it to a superior, then simply run out and execute it. The paper-shuffling and painstaking approval process is typically omitted from films, likely for fear that watching officers fill out forms would put audiences to sleep.


"Zero Dark Thirty" makes the very real frustrations of not being able to act entrepreneurially within a bloated bureaucratic agency highly compelling, with the main character -- a CIA officer portrayed by Oscar-nominated Jessica Chastain -- butting heads with her chief of station and her colleagues almost as often as with obstructive terror suspects at agency black sites. As in real life, the bureaucracy was almost a character unto itself in the movie -- like the ghost in a horror film that we never see but constantly tortures the protagonist.

Chastain's CIA officer says to the agency director that she's "done nothing else" over her 12 years with the agency besides work on the bin Laden case. Unlike with James Bond films, information doesn't just fall into someone's lap, or come as the result of a one-night stand with a source after a few well-shaken martinis. Chastain's character spends years vetting little bits and pieces of information as they trickle in. At one point she's devastated to learn that a lead in which she had invested enormous time and resources pursuing might ultimately be a dead end. "Confirmation bias" -- assessing a theory or a piece of information as valid because you desperately want or think it to be, and excluding other information for the same reason -- is mentioned several times throughout the film as an impediment to good intelligence work.


The film includes various shots of information mapping boards, showing the connections CIA analysts have drawn between various pieces of information and terror suspects. Intelligence work is a giant puzzle with millions of tiny pieces. Sometimes a nugget of intelligence carries no particular significance when it first pops onto an analyst's radar, but it ends up becoming valuable as more pieces are added. Vibrations in the muck can turn out to be significant in the final analysis.

This is why, for example, Russian models and businessmen in major world cities such as London, Paris and New York are encouraged to cozy up to wealthy or connected businessmen or politicians, or why Chinese students abroad are asked to feed tidbits back to the state. They are intelligence assets who are rewarded on a piecemeal, freelance basis for collecting seemingly innocuous bits and pieces about things like connections between people, contact information, business strategy, personal habits and patterns. Their job is simply to collect and feed into the system as much information as they can without assessing importance. Someone higher up the food chain takes care of assessment and puts the puzzle together. It may just be those few words that slipped from a businessman's mouth at the dinner table that, unbeknownst to him, end up being the final piece of something years in the making.


As with the shadowy world of espionage itself, the most interesting real-world lessons in "Zero Dark Thirty" are a bit farther below the surface.

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