After 9/11, John (a pseudonym), a CIA analyst with the tall, lanky physique of the avid basketball player he had been in both high school and college, played a critical role in the hunt for bin Laden.
John joined the CIA's Counterterrorism Center in 2003 and stayed there, even though he could have taken promotions to go elsewhere, because he was fixated on finding bin Laden. He had pushed for more CIA drone strikes in the tribal regions of Pakistan in 2007, when he noticed that more Westerners were showing up there for terrorist training.
Like the Maya character in "Zero Dark Thirty," John was consistently certain that bin Laden was living in Abbottabad, but he put the odds at around 90% rather than the 100% that Maya puts it in the movie. John and other male CIA analysts barely feature in the film.
In the book "No Easy Day" by "Mark Owen," the Navy SEAL who went on the raid that killed bin Laden, he describes a CIA analyst he names "Jen" who corresponds to Maya. Like Maya, Jen is 100% sure bin Laden is living in Abbottabad.
In "Zero Dark Thirty," when the SEALs return to base with bin Laden's body, Maya calmly opens the body bag containing his remains and simply nods that it is, indeed, al Qaeda's leader.
But in real life, when the SEALs returned to base after bin Laden's death, they found "Jen" in the fetal position sobbing uncontrollably.
Sometimes the facts are even stranger and more interesting than the fictionalized version.
(Full disclosure: Along with other national security experts, as an unpaid adviser I screened an early cut of "Zero Dark Thirty." We advised that the torture scenes were overwrought. Al Qaeda detainees held at secret CIA prison sites overseas were certainly abused, but they were not beaten to a pulp, as was presented in this early cut. Screenwriter Mark Boal told CNN that as a result of this critique, some of the bloodier scenes were "toned down" in the final cut of the film. I also saw this final version of the film. Finally, HBO is making a theatrical release documentary that will be out in 2013 based on my book about the hunt for bin Laden entitled "Manhunt." This film features a number of the real-life female analysts and "targeters" at the CIA who hunted al Qaeda's leaders.)