WASHINGTON – She was a real-life heroine of the CIA hunt for Osama bin Laden, a headstrong young operative whose work tracking the al-Qaida leader serves as the dramatic core of a Hollywood film set to premiere this month.
Her CIA career has followed a more problematic script, however, since bin Laden was killed.
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.
She has sparred with CIA colleagues over credit for the bin Laden mission. After being given a prestigious award for her work, she sent an email to dozens of other recipients saying they didn’t deserve to share her accolades, current and former officials said.
The woman has also come under scrutiny for her contacts with filmmakers and others about the bin Laden mission, part of a broader internal inquiry into the agency’s cooperation on the new movie and other projects, former officials said.
Her defenders say the operative has been treated unfairly, and even her critics acknowledge that her contributions to the bin Laden hunt were crucial. But the developments have cast a cloud over a career that is about to be bathed in the sort of cinematic glow ordinarily reserved for fictional Hollywood spies.
The female officer, who is in her 30s, is the model for the main character in “Zero Dark Thirty,” a film that chronicles the decade-long hunt for the al-Qaida chief and that critics are describing as an Academy Award front-runner even before its Dec. 19 release.
The character Maya, which is not the CIA operative’s real name, is portrayed as a gifted operative who spent years pursuing her conviction that al-Qaida’s courier network would lead to bin Laden, a conviction that proved correct.
At one point in the film, after a female colleague is killed in an attack on a CIA compound in Afghanistan, Maya describes her purpose in near-messianic terms: “I believe I was spared so I could finish the job.”
Colleagues said the on-screen depiction captures the woman’s dedication and combative temperament.
“She’s not Miss Congeniality, but that’s not going to find Osama bin Laden,” said a former CIA associate, who added that the attention from filmmakers sent waves of envy through the agency’s ranks.
“The agency is a funny place, very insular,” the former official said. “It’s like middle-schoolers with clearances.”
The woman is not allowed to talk to journalists, and the CIA declined to answer questions about her, except to stress that the bin Laden mission involved an extensive team. “Over the course of a decade, hundreds of analysts, operators and many others played key roles in the hunt,” said agency spokeswoman Jennifer Youngblood.
The internal frictions are an unseemly aspect of the ongoing fallout from a mission that is otherwise regarded as as one of the most remarkable successes in CIA history.
The movie has been a source of controversy since it was revealed that the filmmakers — including director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal — were given extensive access to officials at the White House, the Pentagon and the CIA.
Members of Congress have called for investigations into whether classified information was shared. The movie’s release was delayed amid criticism that it amounted to a re-election ad for President Barack Obama.
The film’s publicity materials say that Maya “is based on a real person,” but the filmmakers declined to elaborate. U.S. officials acknowledged that Boal met with Maya’s real-life counterpart and other CIA officers, typically in the presence of someone from the agency’s public affairs office. The character is played by Jessica Chastain.
Her real-life counterpart joined the agency before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, officials said, and served as a targeter — a position that involves finding targets to recruit as spies or for lethal drone strikes — in the CIA’s station in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad.
She was in that country when the search for bin Laden, after years of being moribund, suddenly heated up. After Obama took office, CIA operatives re-examined several potential trails, including al-Qaida’s use of couriers to hand-deliver messages to and from bin Laden.
“After this went right, there were a lot of people trying to take credit,” the former intelligence official said. But the female targeter “was one of the people from very early on pushing this” courier approach.
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. But when dozens of others were given lesser awards, the female officer lashed out.
“She hit ‘reply all’ ” to an email announcement of the awards, a second former CIA official said. The thrust of her message, the former official said, was: “You guys tried to obstruct me. You fought me. Only I deserve the award.”
Over the past year, she was denied a promotion that would have raised her civil service rank from GS-13 to GS-14, bringing an additional $16,000 in annual pay.
Officials said the woman was given a cash bonus for her work on the bin Laden mission and has since moved on to a new counterterrorism assignment. They declined to say why the promotion was blocked.
The move stunned the woman’s former associates, despite her reputation for clashing with colleagues.
“Do you know how many CIA officers are jerks?” the former official said. “If that was a disqualifier, the whole National Clandestine Service would be gone.”
The targeter’s contacts with the “Zero Dark Thirty” filmmakers have also been examined as part of an inquiry, apparently by the CIA inspector general, into the information that agency officials shared with outsiders about the quest to find bin Laden.
Internal emails released this year under Freedom of Information Act requests showed how the agency set up repeated visits for Boal, allowing him to tour the “vault” where the raid was planned and even see a mockup of the Abbottabad compound.
Former CIA officials said agency enthusiasm for the film has been tempered as details about it have surfaced, including the fact that the movie opens with a harrowing waterboarding scene in a secret CIA prison.