I've read a lot the past few weeks about the bountiful harvest of first-rate films this year telling stories about political Washington, D.C., past and present. For the first time in a long time, government staffers are portrayed as smart, resourceful heroes, and not the usual blundering simpletons. That false depiction seems to have contributed over the past few decades to a culture of disdain for the federal government. Zero Dark Thirty, in spite of the controversy about the efficacy of torture in tracking down Bin Laden, manages to be a very upbeat portrayal of human inventiveness within the government.
I've heard friends in government service, both national and local, remark on scenes to which they could relate, and the overall level of sexism and machismo that remains in government and, particularly, the military. The film portrayed that culture as omnipresent but fading, with a fragility rarely discussed. Maya succeeds as one of few women in the CIA, having to constantly prove herself and accept without argument the dismissive descriptor of "girl" from her colleagues and superiors. One can possibly infer from the ending of the film that even the president, when Maya identified the body of UBL and reported that identification to the military commander present, had referred to her as such on the phone to the commander. An improvement from recent years, but still a pervasive problem.
Most striking to me, however, is how Maya persevered, in the face of bureaucratic obstacles, both structural and personal, to accomplish her job; her only job for the government during her career, as it turns out. She believed in herself, and her knowledge and self-confidence allowed her to show the courage to speak truth to power when it was necessary. She dressed down her CIA station chief in Islamabad, and kept pestering her superiors at Langley as the clock kept ticking. She even brashly told the Secretary of Defense who she was and what she had accomplished, and when asked what she thought the odds were of Bin Laden being present in the house in Abbottabad, said without hesitation, something like, "100 percent. Oh, OK, I know how much you guys hate certainty, so I'll say 95 percent."
She could have been wrong, she had her doubts. She had seen colleagues killed when they had all gotten it wrong before. But she was able to see the problem from more than one side, from beyond its impact on her career and place in the government hierarchy. When her superiors challenged the intelligence and were fearful they would be wrong if they acted based on deductive reasoning and human intelligence gathered years earlier, she came back forcefully to ask about the consequences of not acting, of failing to act expeditiously and missing an opportunity. She knew that missed opportunities could be as fateful and fatal as chosen opportunities gone badly.
Ann Hornaday of The Post summed up the ethos of the film, "Here's to the big breaks, and the little people that make 'em happen," as said by Maya's colleague, Jessica. I remember standing in the White House in October, 2009, when President Obama, who had recently signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, admonished all of us hopeful activists, "Make me do it." He told us it was our responsibility to create the pressure that would give him the space, and the opportunity, to bring about more of the change for which we had been fighting. Our responsibility. This echoed the same quote often attributed to President Roosevelt, when FDR told labor leaders in 1932 that he agreed with them and wanted to do it, but they had to make him do it. These quotes sum up the process by which citizens lobby their government to create change -- an inside game influencing elected officials and their staff, and the outside game that both elects people and then pressures them to faithfully execute the laws and create new ones at the behest of those who elected them.
Maya signed up to hunt for Bin Laden, worked at it for twelve years under three presidents, and got the job done against great odds, both within and outside her agency and the rest of the government. The images we all have of the president from May 1, 2011 -- watching Seal Team Six from the White House Situation Room, at the White House Correspondents Dinner in the late evening, and finally reporting to the American people later that evening, are now complemented by the back story concluding with Operation Neptune Spear.
Maya did her job, allowing the president do his. With tenacity, determination, self-confidence and the courage to speak truth to power, she did for our country in spectacular fashion what many activists do every day -- make America a more perfect union. They are all Maya, and we are better for it.