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At the CIA, a ‘Sisterhood’ of Analysts Who Helped Find Bin Laden

May 1, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Cindy Storer and Nada Bakos were part of a majority female team of CIA intelligence analysts -- dubbed "The Sisterhood" -- who contributed to the effort to locate Osama bin Laden. Margaret Warner talks with Storer and Bakos about their intensely detailed work and frustrations with having that work sometimes ignored or belittled.

MARGARET WARNER: Joining me now to discuss the hunt for bin Laden and al-Qaida, I’m joined by two members of so called sisterhood of CIA analysts who appear in the film “Manhunt” and whose work was so crucial to the U.S. effort, Cindy Storer and Nada Bakos.

And welcome to you both.

Like most CIA analysts, you have worked in secret. Your identities have been kept secret all these years. Why did you decide to speak so openly through this film?


NADA BAKOS: I just wanted to be able to tell the firsthand account story for essentially a lot of people that are still there, in addition to my former colleagues.

I thought this was a good opportunity to be able to give the viewer a sense of what national security is like and how the CIA works.

MARGARET WARNER: Cindy, what about you?

CINDY STORER: My motivations were very similar.

And I — on a personal level, I really hoped this would help people understand what our colleagues are doing, and they wouldn’t just be sort of faceless colleagues in the bureaucracy that you can put blame on for whatever goes wrong.

MARGARET WARNER: This was — at least informally, your unit within the bin Laden or al-Qaida hunting unit was known as “The Sisterhood.” Do you think there’s something different about women analysts?

CINDY STORER: Yes, it’s funny, because I honestly don’t know.

I have gone through so many theories with so many different people. For me, personally, in those years, I never thought of myself as a woman, except when we were lumped together that way by other people who were trying to criticize the program.

Other than that, I was just another analyst doing what needed to be done, I thought anyway.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Cindy, what was the hardest thing? Let’s go back to the ’90s. When you were trying to piece together that puzzle that was al-Qaida, the organization, what was the biggest challenge in recognizing and identifying that what looked like separate attacks around the world from the East Africa bombings to the Cole were in fact the work of this one organization and its name was al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden was the head of it?

CINDY STORER: There’s the technical difficulties, if will you, of just trying to figure out — going through all these mounds of little bits of information, and trying to make it — see if there’s a picture there.

And to do that, you have to have a model — you have to have several models in your head about how organizations look like, how they work, how they might not work. What could it be besides a certain kind of organization? And then you are constantly testing the information you get against all these various ideas you have in your head. And then it turns out to be something that you recognize or something that you don’t.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Nada, how was the work that this unit did viewed, let’s stay before 9/11, within the agency?

NADA BAKOS: You know, I — when I joined in 2000, I wasn’t in the Counterterrorism Center, but my understanding — and, Cindy, you weigh in on this — is that, you know, counterterrorism work wasn’t initially viewed as important as some of the traditional analytical work.

CINDY STORER: I mean, most analysts in the agency are — it’s kind of — it’s scholarly, really. It’s a combination between scholarship and journalism, a lot of the job is.

And doing counterterrorism or doing really any transnational issue is a little bit different, not that you are not achieving those levels of scholarship on the issues, but you are also digging down into all of these little details that most people don’t have to worry about.

If you are working a state — a country, you already know the wiring diagram, how the state is organized, even if you have to figure out who really has the power. Well, with a group like this, we had to figure out they even existed. And doing that kind of detailed worked was looked down upon.

MARGARET WARNER: And then, in 2001, your unit and the CIA in general was warning the administration, the rest of the government, that something big was coming, yet 9/11 happened.

When that happened, did you blame yourselves, or were you angry at the criticism that it was due to an intelligence failure?

CINDY STORER: Well, you can’t help but feel guilty and blame yourself, even if there really is nothing you could have — more you could have done.

It’s just human nature. And then, yes, it was very difficult to deal with everyone blaming you for something that you tried so hard to prevent.

MARGARET WARNER: Nada, what would you add to that?

NADA BAKOS: For — in large part, everybody at the CIA takes their job incredibly seriously. That sense of responsibility is not lost on the people who do that job.

So, to have to point out that there was maybe some issues leading up to 9/11 or points missed, I mean, certainly, the people doing the work understood exactly what had happened.

MARGARET WARNER: After 9/11, the unit and — expanded, but really shifted to focusing on targeting individuals for kill or capture. How big a shift was that?

NADA BAKOS: You know, from my perspective, it was pretty dramatic.

I mean, I went from a traditional analytical role and then moved over to the operations side. And, even informally, there were obviously some people already doing that targeting work.

MARGARET WARNER: When targeting, you are targeting someone to be captured and interrogated or killed. What kind of a moral dilemma did that pose for you? You talk about it in the film a little.


When you — you are evaluating the problem, if it’s determined that this person or individual is doing something that is harming the United States’ national security interest or doing something within the country that — and in this case, it was a war theater inside of Iraq — it’s — I think the onus is upon us to be able to control that situation. And if the only way to do that is to capture or kill an individual, then I think it’s warranted.

MARGARET WARNER: After decades working on this, bin Laden is dead, a lot of al-Qaida senior leadership is dead. How confident are each of you that the United States is going to be able to manage this ongoing threat in the decades to come?


CINDY STORER: That’s a hard question, because, obviously, you know, as we go into the future decades, we’re not going to be just looking at this threat. There will be something new coming down the line. It’s probably going to look different.

And, as we always do, we focus on the current, the current war, which we have to do. And I’m always concerned that we’re not going to listen to the next people who are standing and jumping up and down with their hair on fire trying to get people’s attention to something totally new and different.

MARGARET WARNER: Nada Bakos and Cindy Storer, thank you so much.

NADA BAKOS: Thank you.

CINDY STORER: You’re welcome.

GWEN IFILL: Online, Margaret compares “Manhunt” with some of the other recent retellings of the hunt for bin Laden. You can find that on our World page.