A breakthrough in the hunt for Osama bin Laden can be traced back to a woman who grew up in small-town Montana and attended Montana State University.
As a targeting officer for the CIA, Nada Glass Bakos was in charge of the team that searched for the head of al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. What Bakos’ team discovered in that process has been widely recognized as a critical turning point in the decade-long search for bin Laden.
Before Bakos joined the CIA in 2000, a team of CIA analysts—many of them women—uncovered bin Laden’s financing of terrorism in the early 1990s. Later, they connected scraps of intelligence to discover a secret terrorist organization, al-Qaida. The group wrote dozens of warnings about al-Qaida and bin Laden, although those warnings mostly fell on deaf ears before 9/11.
Now, after years of keeping her participation in the events secret, Bakos, 44, is sharing her story. Articulate and self-assured, she was prominently featured in Manhunt: The Search for bin Laden, an HBO documentary, as well as other forums, including a segment about the documentary on the Late Show with David Letterman. Many have also speculated that the protagonist Maya in the Hollywood film Zero Dark Thirty, which dramatizes the hunt, is modeled after Bakos—a claim she is among the first to dismiss—although, she does allow that the character is most likely a blend of women she knew and worked with in the CIA.
Bakos insists there’s no real secret to her success. She says her background and experiences simply matched the CIA’s needs at the time she was hired, and she worked hard. But if her path to hunting terrorists seems unlikely—one lifelong friend recalled that she was always riding a horse in the small Montana community where she grew up—there are also glimpses of how her upbringing contributed to her success.
In fact, the qualities displayed by the Montana native and former MSU student not only reflect her upbringing but were crucial to her success in the CIA. According to Greg Barker, the director of Manhunt, Bakos is an example of how successful CIA analysts and targeting officers have to be able to clearly assess complicated situations while simultaneously understanding opposite viewpoints.
“They have to be articulate, very smart, and very clear in their thinking,” Barker said. “Nada is very much like that, and very highly regarded.
“While they clearly have to know what side they’re on, they also have to be willing to see the other side and be curious,” Barker added. “They can’t have preconceived ideas about any particular person or problem. That’s why I think Nada and the other analysts did the job so well.”
From Montana to the CIA
Bakos, who jokingly describes her time in the CIA as a mix between James Bond movies and The Office television show, joined the agency in 2000 after moving from Missoula to Washington, D.C. She didn’t possess a life-long ambition to be in the CIA and said she was shocked to receive a call back after applying online. She believes she got the job because she had previously worked in labor negotiations for mining and manufacturing companies.
“I think they figured, ‘If she can handle that, she can handle the operations side of the CIA,’” Bakos said.
She wasn’t gung-ho about the position—“I don’t drink the Kool-Aid; it doesn’t matter what it is,” she said—but she thought it would be interesting and decided to accept. She was 28.
—Nada Glass Bakos
Soon after 9/11, Bakos became an analyst in a branch of the CIA where she spent much of her time thinking strategically and producing long papers. The work gave her a larger perspective, but when a friend moved to the agency’s Counterterrorism Center, which was evaluating if there was a connection linking Iraq, al-Qaida and 9/11, Bakos decided to follow. There, she analyzed communications intercepts, reports from CIA case officers, satellite images and accounts from other governments.
“It was a little intense, and at first I was thinking, ‘I’m going to fail at this,’” Bakos said. “They were relying on me to do stuff I had never done before…but I almost thrive on that.”
Bakos also began writing briefing papers for U.S. President George W. Bush. Eventually, she wrote an average of two briefings a week; she said many of her colleagues wrote two a year on a slow account.
The team she was on was also pulling long hours preparing to defend the agency’s conclusions to such high-level policymakers as then-Vice President Dick Cheney. Such a practice was unprecedented, and Bakos said the consequences were serious.
“No intelligence analyst should have to deal with policymakers delving into intelligence work,” she wrote in an article published in Wired magazine. “It sounds bureaucratic and boring, but the distinction matters: CIA doesn’t have a policy agenda; it seeks to inform those agendas.”
The intensity took its toll, and, Bakos quit the CIA for three days in 2003, exhausted.
Then she quickly reconsidered.
“Zarqawi was gaining all this traction, all this notoriety for his brutal terrorist tactics,” she said. “This would not be happening had (the U.S.) not invaded (Iraq)…. I figured it was our obligation to figure out how to stop it.”
The Zarqawi link to bin Laden
Instead of continuing as an analyst, however, Bakos decided to take a position on the operations side. She started working for the National Clandestine Service—the national authority for clandestine operations of the U.S.—as a targeting officer heading up the operations team looking for Zarqawi. At times, the assignment would take her away from an office building in Washington to Iraq. The hands-on nature of the work appealed to her.
“I thought, ‘Here’s this guy I’ve been writing about. Maybe I could actually have some effect on what he’s doing there,’” Bakos said.
As she recalled in Manhunt, the job required her to learn everything she could about Zarqawi. In fact, her coworkers even jokingly referred to Zarqawi as her boyfriend because she knew so much about him.
“You have to intimately know the target you’re going after,” Bakos said. “How that person is going to act, react. What they’re going to do that day, what their strategy is, who they’re going to talk to. What are their priorities in life?”
Bakos moved on to another assignment a few months before Zarqawi was killed in 2006 by a targeted bombing, but her reaction to his death was strong.
“I was relieved more than anything,” Bakos said. Because the assignment was classified, she can’t discuss where she was when she learned Zarqawi was killed. “With him, I did feel like (his death) would hopefully help change the direction of the war. I knew his bench wasn’t that strong, …but I also knew there would be people to fill his shoes.”
Thinking about Zarqawi 24/7 wasn’t pleasant, Bakos said, but it was critically important. In fact, information obtained by her team has been widely recognized as a big break in the hunt for bin Laden.
Zarqawi was known for his brutal and indiscriminate killings, and bin Laden reportedly asked him to stop killing Muslims. When Zarqawi ignored bin Laden’s instructions, bin Laden sent an aide to Iraq to apply force. Bakos’ team was tracking that aide, and in 2004, they learned from him the pseudonym of bin Laden’s courier.
That courier was bin Laden’s only link to the world outside the compound where he was hiding in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Eventually, the CIA also learned the real name of the courier, who then unknowingly led the U.S. to bin Laden and his compound. There, in 2011, U.S. Special Forces killed the al-Qaida leader in a riveting mission that was dramatized in Zero Dark Thirty. By then, Bakos had left the CIA. Just as when Zarqawi was killed, she was relieved by bin Laden’s death, but she knew the fight wasn’t over.
“This was just one person,” she said. “It doesn’t end an ideology.”
The tenacity to find some of the world’s most notorious terrorists was developed in one of Montana’s most tranquil landscapes. Nada Glass grew up in and outside of Denton, then a town of about 500 in the rolling agricultural farm and ranch land of central Montana. Her high school graduating class numbered nine.
Bakos learned to value education as well as curiosity from her family. Bakos calls her grandmother, who died earlier this year at the age of 96, as a particularly strong and influential female figure in her life.
“My grandma instilled that inquisitive part—the way she talked about learning something new,” Bakos said. “Just driving out to find cows, she would teach me things along the way.”
One of Bakos’ lifelong friends from Denton, Kurt DeMars—who has had a successful career in marketing and advertising with the New York Times and Rolling Stone magazine, among other publications—said he was shocked to learn that Bakos spent part of her career as an analyst and targeting officer for the CIA. But, he isn’t shocked that she has been successful.
“She’s always had the drive, the tenacity, the smarts to get there,” DeMars said. In fact, Bakos has long exhibited traits that make her stand out, he added.
“Nada has always known herself very well,” DeMars said. “I think she’s a very introspective person, and that she has always tried to better herself. The sense that she got her calling (to the CIA) and was up for the task doesn’t surprise me.”
Perhaps most notably, Bakos and her childhood friends never imposed limitations on themselves.
“When you live in the middle of nowhere, the world is your oyster,” Bakos said. “That was our perspective.”
Like her mother and aunts before her, Bakos decided to attend MSU after she graduated from high school in 1987.
However, the first month she was at MSU, a drunk driver hit Bakos and three of her friends from the Alpha Omicron Pi sorority on a street near the university.
Among her injuries were internal bleeding and a head injury that went undiagnosed for years. She didn’t recognize the long-term physical effects at the time, but the accident left a big impression.
“It was my first insight into how women are viewed differently,” she said. “Even…inside the hospital, we were treated like hypochondriacs.”
Bakos withdrew for the rest of the quarter and returned to MSU for the next. She felt behind when she returned, but she sensed a deep connection to the other women in the sorority, and she was encouraged by how the Greek system rallied around her and the others who had been hit.
Bakos was originally interested in studying graphic design, later switching to economics.
—Nada Glass Bakos
When MSU moved from the quarter system to the semester system, the rotation of classes also changed. Bakos realized that it would take longer to graduate, so she transferred to the University of Utah, where she completed her degree in international economics.
Bakos spent four years at MSU—1987–1991—and she said the university provided a strong academic environment. She added that several of her professors were influential in her life.
“As I’ve worked with people who graduated from Ivy League schools, I’ve come to realize my education was on par with theirs,” she said.
Bakos decided to leave the CIA in 2008 so that she could devote more time to family and live in the West again. She now lives in a western state and works as a consultant, focusing on national security issues, illicit networks, human trafficking and regional stability around the world. She is also working on a book about her experiences in the agency, as well as several other writing and television projects—including a documentary about the Boston Marathon bombing.
She called her decision to speak about her experiences in Manhunt—which premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and later aired on CNN as well as HBO—difficult, because she wanted to be respectful of her former colleagues who are still doing the work. Ultimately, she decided to be part of the film because she felt it was important to share a firsthand account of their work, and she regarded it as an opportunity to provide insights into national security and the CIA.
Bakos also didn’t want to appear to be taking credit for things she didn’t do, and so the comparison between herself and Maya in Zero Dark Thirty has bothered her. Bakos has pointed out that it’s not possible for one person to do everything that was credited to Maya in the film, and that she was not part of the team that found bin Laden in the end.
Sharing her experiences publicly also meant sharing them with the people closest to her. Bakos said her mother didn’t know much of what was revealed in Manhunt, nor did her husband.
“This is an intense job and the subject matter is not a happy one, so it’s not something you want to talk about that often,” Bakos said.
Still, Bakos feels there are lessons to be learned from how the U.S. conducted intelligence while she was in the CIA. And, she believes changes need to be made.
To start, she believes the government needs to be more transparent about its findings and share with the public the reasons for its actions.
In addition, she says the U.S. needs to acknowledge that its situation has changed in the years since 9/11.
“We need to do something preemptive to make sure it doesn’t escalate to the point it did and have another 9/11-style attack, but at the same time acknowledge that we’re not in the same position we were on 9/10/2001,” she said.
More broadly, she advocates for a less insular global stance.
“If you want to remain a superpower, you can’t afford to recoil from the international scene,” she said. “You have to choose to be involved.”
Bakos is also clear about one of her motivations for sharing her story.
“What I would like to see is more kids from Montana being interested in this and not thinking it’s something out of their reach,” she said. “If there’s a more diverse mindset within the components of our national security apparatus, that will only help.”
One of the people who has known Bakos the longest says he’s proud of the work she did in the CIA.
“History will remember her. She did the world a lot of good with her service,” DeMars said.
He added that despite the attention that has come to Bakos recently, she is still the same person he knew growing up in Denton.
“One of the things Nada said in Manhunt was that you really have to know your moral center,” DeMars said. “I think part of that is growing up in a community like Denton. She’s always kept her moral center and has never wavered from it. She’s always been herself.”