Over the last year, we’ve seen a lot — both on TV and at the movies — about the process by which the CIA located and killed Osama bin Laden. But much that has been presented was speculative or contrived, as was the case with the Oscar-nominated Zero Dark Thirty.
Now, with the May 1 HBO premiere of the documentary Manhunt, audiences will have a chance to take a closer look at the true story of the analysts and case officers who made it happen. (Or, rather, as much of the true story as they’re allowed to share.)
The documentary, which showed at Sundance this year, is based on the book by the same name by Peter Bergen and includes interviews with several people who experienced the search first-hand—including Nada Bakos, a former CIA analyst. Bakos spoke to TIME about going public, remembering the hunt and her thoughts on Zero Dark Thirty.
How does going public work with the secrecy of your former job?
We are able to share our opinions. As long as we don’t talk about classified information and divulge anything like that, or sources, we’re free to say whatever we feel.
How did you get involved with the project?
I knew Peter Bergen [who wrote the book that provided the background for the movie], and he had told Greg Barker about me. Then, after talking to Greg for a while and understanding his intentions behind the movie, wanting to do first-hand storytelling and something that’s politically agnostic, and he had a good handle on the subject matter, I decided this would be a good opportunity.
What did he tell you about the reason for embarking on the project that was so convincing?
He said that the night of the Abbottabad raid he was watching the President make that announcement — and that’s where he got the idea for a documentary. He kind of felt like, well, this seems like a lot had transpired over the last two decades. He wanted to be able to tell the story of how that transpired. Everybody knows the last few minutes on the court, you know, the raid — but nobody had really talked about how we felt doing this, and how we did it.
What was it like to revisit that time in your life?
I had walked away from it and hadn’t been thinking about it for a while, so it was interesting. It did bring back a lot of different emotions, and memories that I had forgotten about.
Do you still think about Zarqawi a lot, since you say in the movie you used to think about him 24/7?
I think about the team that I worked with and the work that they’re still there doing. Many of my former colleagues are still there and that’s what I think about more than anything. A lot of why I agreed to do this was, I felt like I could be the one person from that team to tell this story. I wanted people to understand that there are human beings behind this work. With the best intentions to do the right thing for the American public. Whether or not they always make the right decisions is a completely different issue.
Does the American public have an accurate picture of what really happened?
I think it’s clouded by sound bites, which happens a lot. That’s very common, and the CIA by design is a secretive organization. They don’t publicize their work, nor should they, which is another reason I decided to do this. I thought this was hopefully representing my team from that perspective.
Why is it important for people to see that?
Ultimately, the American public is paying the bill for the U.S. government. They need to understand how this works. And, again, they need to also understand that the CIA does not have a crystal ball and that there’s an element of risk in an open society. They’re not going to be able to stop and foresee everything that’s going to be happening in the world. I think that’s another reason it’s useful to be able to see this, how it works.
I know this is addressed in the movie, but for people who haven’t seen it yet, there are a lot of women on the analyst team.
Those were my predecessors, the original Qaeda analysts, and the team was predominantly female. Since I wasn’t one of them, my understanding is, that at the time, terrorism work wasn’t traditional work. It wasn’t viewed as a great place to be, or the right account to have. A lot of these women were passionate about the subject matter and understood the intensity and the urgency of it early on and stayed with it. A lot of them are still there.
I have to ask you about Zero Dark Thirty. What did you think?
I thought it was entertaining. I still kind of don’t understand why Kathryn Bigelow didn’t get nominated [for an Oscar]. But at the same time, it didn’t represent intel work. It looked more like a law-enforcement investigation. It’s hard when you’re intimately involved in something to watch it. I think they did a good job for the access they had.
What about the movie seemed like law enforcement to you?
Intel analysis takes years, and lots of people, and lots of data — and the culmination of all that initial analysis in the ‘90s was what helped lead to Abbottabad. It wasn’t the last 90 seconds on the court that made all the difference. In addition, the fact that it was more of a team effort than that.
Did you see yourself in Maya?
No. I never met the director and the writer for that movie. I saw her more as a compilation of some of the original al-Qaeda analysts — and maybe some of the second generation that I was part of.
What are you up to these days, when you’re not getting ready for this movie to premiere?
My 15 minutes of fame will be over Thursday. I’m looking to figure out how I take this skill set and apply it to another subject that I’m interested in. In the mean time I’m working on a book and trying to develop a TV series loosely based on my experience.