Zero Dark Thirty: The Real Dirty Truth About (Counter) Intelligence – It’s Boring Work


“To you, a hero is some kind of weird sandwich!”

Oddball, from the movie “Kelly’s Heroes”

So by now the hype is going strong and running hard and fast: Zero Dark Thirty: it’s deep, hard and rams it into you (kind of sounds like a promo for a porn film, doesn’t it?). But that’s the way we’ve been brought to believe: counter intelligence work is hot and sexy. Violence rules. Those in the industry (so to speak) work long hard hours, protect our nation and get to see serious action and maybe get a chance to get laid.


As this interview from one who was actually there in the hunt for Bin Laden, it turns out it’s anything but. To be sure, there is the thrill of the hunt and the knowledge that the work that’s being done is being done to protect the lives of innocents and to protect a great part of who we are as a people and as a nation.

But intelligence work of any kind is generally anything but sexy.

To be a good analyst you have to be a major file geek: one who’s willing and able – and actually enjoys – slogging through reams of data, attending boring meetings and dealing with bureaucratic bullshit as the big wigs fight it amongst themselves over who’s going to get a bigger portion of the budgetary pie, working to justify the existence of themselves and their staff at the cost of everyone else. To some folk, the notion of Big Data is nothing new, and even though one can access some serious computer processing hardware, it still comes down to knowing which data sets to utilize and capture, maybe even understanding such things as co-variants and correlations, mapping layers, data captures, etc.

And yes, luck does play a role in all of this.

It’s pretty much the same across the board regardless of what level of government you’re at or where you serve as an intelligence analyst – although to be certain, the degree of risk and the stakes at play can be vast worlds apart. Picture yourself having to sort through a pile of files knowing that somewhere in there are the clues to the precise location of individuals who may very well be in a position to get their hands on a low-level thermonuclear / dirty bomb; makes for an interesting morning, wouldn’t you say?

One person’s notion of a junk pile suddenly becomes another’s life or death situation.

It’s rarely a James Bond scenario and, as this interview pointed out, not for Zero Dark Thirty. But what Zero Dark Thirty does is play into our stereotypes, our desires – our need for a group of super people (so to speak) who are out there protecting us. Granted, it’s not a job for everyone and not everyone certainly can’t do what the Seals or the ‘agents’ do on our behalf, but we have to keep things in perspective. Perhaps one of the more disturbing aspects of Zero Dark Thirty is that it plays into our fears and hopes that all of this is made possible not by a rather large (or a series of) rather large organizations but by a small group of individuals. Frankly, most of the folk involved in the entire enterprise would probably feel embarrassed by the notion that they’re total cowboys: they’d just be happy to have everyone else – the ones in the back rooms, the file clerks, the webmasters, the office interns, the field supervisors, the gunny sergeants, the GS-12’s, the pilot support teams and, well, you get the idea – to get the credit as well.

Zero Dark Dirty is a disturbing film not so much for its depiction of torture (a topic which can be discussed another time, regardless of how you feel), but rather for its notion that it is the action of the few which protects the many. We fail to remember that we are all in this one way or another, and in so doing, we’ll tend to leave the work to those few at the cost of reality – and that’s the disturbing part.

On average, it takes about 17 people to support every soldier in combat. Take the number of people you see on that movie screen and you realize that there are a lot of people who weren’t acknowledged – and by forgetting this, we tend to over simplify things and stick with looking for pat answers to our problems and challenges.

To be sure, there are those few who stand out for their dedication and focus – and for them we truly need to acknowledge their work. But when you speak to those few who’ve been on the spot, true heroes feel as though they’re anything but – and they’ll point back to those who made it all possible.

This is a complicated world: it takes far more than pat answers to get by when you’re the top dog – and when we forget this, we’re only going to create more confusion and more problems – and ultimately in the long-term, more work for ourselves.

Check out the interview for yourself:


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