Nada Bakos, a former CIA analyst who was part of the team charged with finding Osama bin Laden, spoke to University of Washington students on Nov. 13 after screening an HBO documentary called “Manhunt: The Search for Bin Laden” directed by Greg Barker and released earlier this year. The event was sponsored by the Center for Global Studies at the Jackson School of International Studies.
Bakos answered questions about her career as an analyst who worked in the turbulent time around 9/11, as well as why as a former intelligence analyst she chose to appear in the documentary.
“(Movies like “Zero Dark Thirty”) just didn’t resonate with me,” said Bakos. “I thought it was important to have this first-person story out into the public sphere of what it’s like to do that job and what it was like to deal with operations shortly after 9/11.”
The documentary chronicles almost two decades of CIA investigation into bin Laden’s life, starting in 1995 until his death in 2011. It features archival footage, documents and narratives from the CIA analysts and operators. The film also used rarely seen footage from al Qaeda propaganda and training videos. Bakos is one of the many analysts whose time at the CIA became narrowly focused on the hunt for al Qaeda after the September 11, 2001, attacks.
But the film attracted more than just “Zero Dark Thirty” junkies; it gathered an audience of people looking for a more realistic story than the Hollywood drama.
“It’s very interesting to see how it was portrayed (in the movies) versus how it actually happened,” said Kate Garvey, an international studies senior who’s double-majoring in political science. “It’s like day and night, almost.”
Many of the students in the audience came after Bakos spoke in their international studies class about politics in the Middle East, but most said they would have come anyway to get a sense of a potential career path.
“I’m interested in CIA and government work,” said Stephanie Sampson, a junior also majoring in international studies and political science, who said the movie didn’t disappoint. “It’s interesting to get to see the inner workings of how all those things work behind the scenes, and to put a face to the people (back there).”
The behind-the-scenes aspect appealed to Sampson the most: The film managed to give a glimpse into the regular people behind the massive manhunt, and give the audience a better sense of the “real people” at work.
“What I like about this film is it lets you judge—as a citizen, as a taxpayer, as the audience member—on whether or not you think how we waged war and how we conducted the war on terror made any sense and continues to make sense going forward,” said Bakos. “I think you’ll see how some of us are reflective about that and talk about how maybe things could be done differently.”
After the film screening, Bakos answered questions from the audience about her work, her life, and what it was like for her to help advise the policy directors on dictating security protocol for the U.S. Bakos ended her talk on the future, and while she’s not sure what her next job will be, she’s sure it will never be the same as her time with the CIA.
“I was there at such an odd time: before 9/11, through 9/11, and then, largely, we were at war while I was a part of it,” she said. “I’m happily figuring out what my next step is, pursuing some project … but — this’ll sound strange — I’ll never have a job like that again. It’s just a once-in-a-lifetime challenge.”
By Zosha Millman