The intelligence community’s meritocracy in action

Summary:  A combination of events has provide a window into the operation of the CIA. The leaks about Ms. Bikowsky, the model for the lead character in “Zero Dark Thirty”, show us  how people in the CIA think, about their values, and how the CIA promotes. This is a follow-up to yesterday’s sad post; today’s provides equally dark news.

Hollywood CIA agent
Hollywood’s version of a CIA agent



  1. Introducing Alfreda Frances Bikowsky
  2. Torture is entertainment
  3. The CIA meritocracy at work
  4. About the heroine in “Zero Dark Thirty”
  5. For More Information


(1)  Introducing Alfreda Frances Bikowsky

Chief of CIA’s ‘Global Jihad Unit’ Revealed Online“, Gawker,
22 September 2011 — Excerpt:

Her name is Alfreda Frances Bikowsky and, according to independent reporters Ray Nowosielski and John Duffy, she is a CIA analyst who is partially responsible for intelligence lapses that led to 9/11. The two reporters recently released a “documentary podcast” called “Who Is Richard Blee?” about the chief of the agency’s bin Laden unit in the immediate run-up to the 9/11 attacks and featuring interviews with former counterterrorism official Richard Clarke, former CIA agent Bob Baer, Looming Tower author Lawrence Wright, 9/11 Commission co-chairman Tom Keane, and others.

In it, Nowosielski and Duffy make the case that Bikowsky and another CIA agent named Michael Anne Casey deliberately declined to tell the White House and the FBI that Khalid al-Mihdhar, an Al Qaida affiliate they were tracking, had obtained a visa to enter the US in the summer of 2001. Al-Mihdhar was one of the hijackers on American Airlines Flight 77. The CIA lost track of him after he entered the US.

… Nowosielski and Duffy also contend that Bikowsky is the unnamed “particularly overzealous female officer” described in Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side who traveled to personally view Khalid Sheikh Muhammed’s interrogation despite having “no legitimate reason” to be there.

(2)  Torture is entertainment

From The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How The War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals by Jane Mayer (2008):



{she} was reviled by some male colleagues for what they described as her aggression.

… Coworkers said she had no reason to be present during {Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s} interrogation. She was not an interrogator. “She thought it would be cool to be in the room” a former colleague said. But ironically her presence during Mohammed’s ordeal, sources said, seemed to anger and strengthen his resolve, helping him to hold out longer against the harsh tactics used against him.

(c)  The CIA meritocracy at work

More stories about the career of Alfreda Frances Bikowsky. Another mistake, followed by promotion. “CIA officers make grave mistakes, get promoted“, AP, 9 February 2011 — “Since 9/11, many whose errors left people wrongly imprisoned or dead have received only minor admonishments or no punishment at all.”  Excerpt:

At the Counterterrorism Center, some had doubts that el-Masri was a terrorist, current and former U.S. officials said. But Frances, a counterterrorism analyst with no field experience, pushed ahead. She supported el-Masri’s rendition — in which the CIA snatches someone and takes him to another country. The AP agreed to the CIA’s request to refer to Frances by her middle name because her first is unusual.

… Once el-Masri arrived in Afghanistan, however, questions persisted. A second detainee in U.S. custody looked at a picture of el-Masri and told CIA officers that they’d grabbed the wrong man. Perhaps most glaring, el-Masri had a German passport. The man the CIA was looking for was not a German citizen. El-Masri says he was beaten, sodomized and drugged.

Even after the CIA confirmed that the German passport was authentic, Frances was not convinced, former officials said. She argued against freeing el-Masri, saying his phone had been linked to terrorists. For weeks, the U.S. knowingly held the wrong man, as top CIA officers tried to figure out what to do. Five months after the abduction, the U.S. privately acknowledged to the Germans what had happened. El-Masri was quietly released.

… The CIA’s inspector general opened an investigation and determined there had been no legal justification for el-Masri’s rendition. It was a startling finding. Though the inspector general does not make legal conclusions, the CIA’s watchdog had essentially said the agency acted illegally. The document has never been released but its findings were summarized by people who have seen it.

The report came down hard on Frances. She had been warned about the uncertainties surrounding el-Masri’s identity. There hadn’t been enough evidence for a rendition, the report said, but Frances pushed ahead. “You can’t render people because they have called a bad guy or know a bad guy,” a former U.S. intelligence official said, describing the investigation’s findings on condition of anonymity because the report still has not been released. “She was convinced he was a bad guy.”

Nobody in management was singled out for discipline.

The inspector general’s report posed a dilemma for senior managers. Even before the el-Masri case, station chiefs had complained to top CIA officials raising concerns about Frances’ operational judgment. But she was one of the few analysts who had a deep knowledge of al-Qaida before 9/11, working in a former unit known as Alec Station created to track down Osama bin Laden.

… Frances now runs the CIA’s Global Jihad unit, the counterterrorism squad dedicated to hunting down al-Qaida worldwide. She regularly briefs Panetta, making her an influential voice in Obama’s intelligence circle.

This was common during the Vietnam War.  They called it FUMU. F*** Up and Move Up.

(4)  About the heroine in “Zero Dark Thirty”

(a) Zero Dark 30 ‘Heroine’ Outed and Scarred By European Torture Judgment”, Emptywheel, 13 December 2012

As to Alfreda Frances Bikowsky, maybe the question should not be why she didn’t get a promotion, but why she still had a job at all after the Khaled el-Masri and Khalid al-Mihdhar/9-11 cock-ups? And maybe the message conveyed by Zero Dark Thirty, ought to be that leaving the bin Laden chase in the hands of torture freaks like Alfreda Frances Bikowsky impeded, not provided, the final result. Just maybe.

… I would like to make perfectly clear that there appears to be a case that Bikowsky is either the female agent, or perhaps more likely, part of a composite character in Zero Dark Thirty. There is no disclosure of that by the director and screenwriter, and no other direct evidence I have other than deductive reasoning based not only on the above links, but other source material such as here and here read in conjunction with the descriptions of the movie character that have been published in the media.

CIA’s Distinguished Intelligence Medal

(b) In ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’ she’s the hero; in real life, CIA agent’s career is more complicated“, Washington Post, 10 December 2012 — Opening:

She was a real-life heroine of the CIA hunt for Osama bin Laden, a headstrong young operative whose work tracking the al-Qaeda leader serves as the dramatic core of a Hollywood film set to premiere next week. Her CIA career has followed a more problematic script, however, since bin Laden was killed.

This spring, she was among a handful of employees given the agency’s Distinguished Intelligence Medal, its highest honor except for those recognizing people who have come under direct fire.

… The operative, who remains undercover, was passed over for a promotion that many in the CIA thought would be impossible to withhold from someone who played such a key role in one of the most successful operations in agency history.

… The film’s publicity materials say that Maya “is based on a real person,” but the filmmakers declined to elaborate.

(5)  For More Information about the CIA

All posts are listed at the FM Reference Page Intelligence agencies – how they work, how they don’t.

  1. When will global oil production peak? Ask the CIA!, 1 May 2008 — If they don’t know this, they’re useless.
  2. A must-read book for any American interested in geopolitics, 5 March 2009 — About Legacy of Ashes
  3. Another urban legend that will not die: the CIA is the world’s major drug dealer, 11 July 2009
  4. How the Soviet Menace was over-hyped – and what we can learn from this, 13 October 2009
  5. The CIA’s forecast about the Iranian Revolution – and the revolution prediction tool, 6 January 2010
  6. The Flynn report, itself a symptom of deep problems in the government establishment, 11 January 2010
  7. Stratfor: “The Khost Attack and the Intelligence War Challenge”, 18 January 2010
  8. Iran will have the bomb in 5 years (again), 20 January 2010
  9. How useful are our intelligence agencies? To what degree are they blinded by prejudice and institutional needs?, 13 April 2010
  10. About our intelligence agencies: the struggle to find an accurate AND institutionally useful narrative, 14 April 2010
  11. A major function of our intelligence agencies is to shape the narrative. They do it well, molding history like clay on a wheel, 15 April 2010





4 thoughts on “The intelligence community’s meritocracy in action”

  1. Back in the 80’s when I was in school I knew a few Koreans, and when I got to know them better, what I found out was that the were all, every one, afraid of the Korean CIA. They were living here in the USA and going to US schools but they all thought if they said anything against the government they might be hauled back to Korea and who knows what might happen to them or their families. They were sitting next to me in the very next seat in a classroom, but, in a way, they were also living in fear of a police state that had power over them. I admit, at the time I just didn’t get it. I heard what they were saying, but I had no imagination.

    I think this is the nature of it. That in a bus full of people not everyone feels the fear, that most will think everything is calm and watch the news and vote now and then. We’ll be sitting right next to each other, some feeling the pressure of the police state, and others wondering what all the fuss is about.

    1. @Cathryn, As they say on the Twitter, #nailedit!
      I imagine that the South Korean CIA is powerful and fearsome because of the constant war footing the country is on. As the US has largely been since the Cold War and much amplified over the past ten years. I wonder what the average Israeli thinks about the security apparatus

      Many people on that metaphorical US bus have been convinced (propagandized) that we live every day under a continent-wide existential threat.

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