Zero Dark 30 “Heroine” Outed and Scarred By European Torture Judgment


Although many people have been long familiar with her name and career, there seems to be new buzz about the [possible] identity of the female CIA operative lionized in the bin Laden killing and talk of the town movie “Zero Dark Thirty“.

The Twitters are abuzz this morning, but this article from John Cook at Gawker last September tells the tale:

Her name is Alfreda Frances Bikowsky and, according to independent reporters Ray Nowosielski and John Duffy, she is a CIA analyst who is partially responsible for intelligence lapses that led to 9/11. The two reporters recently released a “documentary podcast” called “Who Is Richard Blee?” about the chief of the agency’s bin Laden unit in the immediate run-up to the 9/11 attacks and featuring interviews with former counterterrorism official Richard Clarke, former CIA agent Bob Baer, Looming Tower author Lawrence Wright, 9/11 Commission co-chairman Tom Keane, and others. In it, Nowosielski and Duffy make the case that Bikowsky and another CIA agent named Michael Anne Casey deliberately declined to tell the White House and the FBI that Khalid al-Mihdhar, an Al Qaida affiliate they were tracking, had obtained a visa to enter the U.S. in the summer of 2001. Al-Mihdhar was one of the hijackers on American Airlines Flight 77. The CIA lost track of him after he entered the U.S.

Bikowsky was also, according to Nowosielski and Duffy, instrumentally involved in one of the CIA’s most notorious fuck-ups—the kidnapping, drugging, sodomizing, and torture of Khalid El-Masri in 2003 (El-Masri turned out to be the wrong guy, and had nothing to do with terrorism). As the Associated Press’ Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo reported earlier this year, an analyst they described only by her middle name—”Frances”—pressed for El-Masri to be abducted even though some in the agency weren’t convinced he was the terrorist that Frances suspected he was. Instead of being punished or fired for the error, “Frances” was eventually promoted to running the Global Jihad Unit by then-CIA director Michael Hayden. According to Goldman and Apuzzo’s story, “Hayden told colleagues that he gave Frances a pass because he didn’t want to deter initiative within the counterterrorism ranks.”

My, my, the CIA does have problems keeping secrets lately, don’t they? A point saliently noted by Marcy in relation to both Matt Bissonnette and the Mexican “trainers” who were involved in in an ambush. I guess the de rigueur Obama Administration leak prosecution will be along any second.

It is fairly amazing Bikowsky’s name has been kept out of the real limelight surrounding [speculation on] Zero Dark Thirty this long, considering her known involvement in the other issues, especially the one about gleefully horning in on the torture show viewing [which Bikowsky did in regards to KSM]. An attitude that speaks volumes as to the prominence of and apologia for torture in Zero Dark Thirty. I guess that is what happens when the government and CIA give Hollywood carte blanche to protected information and clandestine operatives like Alfreda Frances Bikowsky.

So, while it adds yet another piece to the Zero Dark Thirty discussion, Bikowsky is not breaking news. What is, however, is the judgment just handed down in the European Court of Human Rights in a case centered on one of Bikowski’s biggest cock-ups, the el-Masri case. As reported in the Miami Herald:

A European court issued a landmark ruling Thursday that condemned the CIA’s so-called extraordinary renditions programs and bolstered those who say they were illegally kidnapped and tortured as part of an overzealous war on terrorism.

The European Court of Human Rights ruled that a German car salesman was a victim of torture and abuse, in a long-awaited victory for a man who had failed for years to get courts in the United States and Europe to recognize him as a victim.

Khaled El-Masri says he was kidnapped from Macedonia in 2003, mistaken for a terrorism suspect, then held and brutally interrogated at an Afghan prison known as the “Sand Pit” and run by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency for four months. He says that once U.S. authorities realized he was not a threat, they illegally sent him to Albania and left him on a mountainside.

The European court, based in Strasbourg, France, ruled that El-Masri’s account was “established beyond reasonable doubt” and that Macedonia “had been responsible for his torture and ill-treatment both in the country itself and after his transfer to the U.S. authorities in the context of an extra-judicial rendition.”

This is an incident, and a judgment, that arguably might never have been but for the aggressive reckless action of [potential] Zero Dark Thirty “heroine” Bikowsky. As Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo noted in their blockbuster initial report on “Frances” (go reread Adam and Matt’s article in full, there is so much more there), Khaled el-Masri was the wrong man. An innocent man turned into a tortured “ghost”. Even worse, the reason this happened to this innocent man was the woman we now know as Alfreda Frances Bikowsky:

A hard-charging CIA analyst had pushed the agency into one of the biggest diplomatic embarrassments of the U.S. war on terrorism. Yet despite recommendations by an internal review, the analyst was never punished. In fact, she has risen to one of the premier jobs in the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, helping lead President Barack Obama’s efforts to disrupt al-Qaida.

A European Human Rights court has managed to do what the United States courts have refused to do, and the American government has refused to allow, for Khaled el-Masri or anybody else – make a formal judicial finding of illegal rendition, torture and responsibility – in a case that was the work product of the American government and CIA. It is a beautiful thing, even if somewhat hollow in the judgment only being enforceable against Macedonia. Just the fact of the judgment speaks volumes about who, and what we, and our lionized “heroines” like Bikowsky are. It also speaks volumes about the perfidy of the Executive and Judicial Branches of the American government that still maintain the lie of “State Secrets” and “National Security” to facts and human wrongs being openly and notoriously discussed and litigated in more honest and enlightened forums.

As to Alfreda Frances Bikowsky, maybe the question should not be why she didn’t get a promotion, but why she still had a job at all after the Khaled el-Masri and Khalid al-Mihdhar/911 cock-ups? And maybe the message conveyed by Zero Dark Thirty, ought to be that leaving the bin Laden chase in the hands of torture freaks like Alfreda Frances Bikowsky impeded, not provided, the final result. Just maybe.

[ADDENDUM/UPDATE: I would like to make perfectly clear that there appears to be a case that Bikowsky is either the female agent, or perhaps more likely, part of a composite character in Zero Dark Thirty. There is no disclosure of that by the director and screenwriter, and no other direct evidence I have other than deductive reasoning based not only on the above links, but other source material such as here and here read in conjunction with the descriptions of the movie character that have been published in the media.

There are many characteristics of Bikowsky that have been described that fit with the character known as “Maya” in the movie; there are many that may not as well (including, potentially, age). Whether Bikowsky, whose name was already well within the public sphere, turns out to have been part of a composite template for “Maya”, time will tell. In the meantime, I clearly jumped too hard, too fast to a conclusion that is not locked down with evidence; for that I apologize.

Would also like to note that everything said about the European Human Rights Court judgment is unaffected and still stands completely]

(Graphic by the one and only Darkblack)

Bmaz is a rather large saguaro cactus in the Southwestern Sonoran desert. A lover of the Constitution, law, family, sports, food and spirits. As you might imagine, a bit prickly occasionally. Bmaz has attended all three state universities in Arizona, with both undergraduate and graduate degrees from Arizona State University, and with significant post-graduate work (in physics and organic chemistry, go figure) at both the University of Colorado in Boulder and the University of Arizona. Married, with both a lovely child and a giant Sasquatch dog. Bmaz has been a participant on the internet since the early 2000’s, including active participation in the precursor to Emptywheel, The Next Hurrah. Formally joined the Emptywheel blog as an original contributing member at its founding in 2007. Bmaz grew up around politics, education, sports and, most significantly, cars; notably around Formula One racing and Concours de Elegance automobile restoration and showing. Currently lives in the Cactus Patch with his lovely wife and beast of a dog, and practices both criminal and civil trial law.
30 replies
  1. Jeff Kaye says:

    Great write-up, bmaz. And while Bikowsky likely deserves whatever infamy the limelight will bring her, I hope it helps shine a light into even darker corners.

    As an article by Scott Horton at Harper’s reminded us two long years ago now, a Wikileaks cable from the US Embassy, Berlin to Condoleezza Rice discussed US diplomatic efforts to stop the prosecution of the agents involved in the El-Masri case.

    The El-Masri cable suggests that the Embassy in Berlin was trying to protect thirteen CIA agents then subject to an arrest warrant. These agents’ true names are now known, and an arrest warrant continues to hang over them–now issued by Spanish prosecutors after American diplomatic pressure effectively chilled the German investigation. But the most noteworthy thing about this cable is the addressee—Condoleezza Rice. Might she and her legal advisor, John Bellinger, have had an interest in the El-Masri case that went beyond their purely professional interest in U.S.-German diplomatic relations? The decision to “snatch” El-Masri and lock him up in the “salt pit” involved the extraordinary renditions program, and it seems as a matter of routine that this would have required not only the approval of the CIA’s top echelon but also the White House-based National Security Council. It’s highly likely that Rice and Bellinger would have been involved in the decision to “snatch” and imprison El-Masri. If authority was given by Rice, then responsibility for the mistake—which might well include criminal law accountability—may also rest with her, and this fact would also not have escaped Koenig as he performed his diplomatic duties.

    As an aside, with reference to the rotting corpse of Adnan Latif, I believe they want to keep it from a second autopsy, where an evaluation of body’s nails or hair or muscle or bone tissue could illuminate us about the actual drugging of his death… I’d note that Horton’s article also reminds us that the evidence of the drugging, plus El-Masri’s exposure to some bizarre starvation diet was determined from biological samples. I believe the CIA had hoped they held him long enough to spike the biological evidence. They were wrong. With Latif, they evidently, with the Yemen government as their accomplices, hope they don’t make the same mistake.

    Except, as the article by Jason and I has shown, Latif also complained of having bones broken in beatings. I think they can never let his body come out now, because even if drugs can’t be determined, his skeleton can show (as Frank Olson’s ultimately did) evidence of gross injury.

    Anyway, thanks again for the good write-up, as well as the reminder re Bikowsky’s role in the el-Masri/al-Mihdhar episode — though I’d note that there, too, she was not solely at blame. Don’t forget, for example, Richard Blee.

  2. pdaly says:

    I don’t understand. Bikowsky lets 9/11 terrorists into the country and watches from afar (not informing FBI) but grabs innocent non-terrorists and has them tortured. Trying valiantly to make up for her mistakes, no doubt, or just failing left and right?

    btw, her name is tricky to spell–or she has more than one alias! There are several variants in this post, bmaz:
    See paragraph above the Miami quote: “Bulowski’s biggest cock-ups”,
    paragraph below the Miami quote “heroine” Bukowsky.
    Second to last paragraph: lionized “heroines” like Bukowsky
    And Bukowsky again in the final sentence.

  3. looking says:

    Does anybody have a working link to the “Who is Richard Blee?” podcast mentioned in the gawker piece, or a transcript of it? Original links are dead, can’t seem to find another.

  4. pdaly says:

    @Jeff Kaye:

    So many names. I had to reread articles to remind myself who Blee is.

    In the process I came across the Truthout interview with Richard Clarke, after his taped interview by Nowosielski and Duffy . Clarke talks about CIA not informing Clarke that future 9/11 high jacker Khalid al-Mihdhar had entered the US. Clarke makes the comment that fifty top CIA people knew this breaking news for weeks/months and never told Clarke. This prompts Clarke to conclude their silence was due to an order from then CIA director Tenet not to share with Clarke.

    Clarke emphatically states 9/11 could have been prevented even as late as 9/4/01 when Tenet could have mentioned “Khalid al-Mihdhar” to him at a meeting. This paints Clarke in a good light where he seems to belong. However, there must be more to Clarke. The problem I have with him is his recent defense of drone attacks. Not sure why he wants to claim credit for extrajudicial killing instead of distancing himself from the practice.

  5. jo6pac says:

    I’m wondering if the fbi high up did know after reading everything here and Sibel Edmonds book and an interview of her by Philip Giraldi it seems to me every one high upin govt. had the head in the sand for a reason. Just saying.
    Thanks for the link everyone.

  6. JTMinIA says:

    bmaz, you’re making it harder and harder for me to decide on the signs to make for picketing in front of the local theatre showing Zero Dark Thirty. We had pretty much settled on “Just Say No to Leni Bigelow!” and “No Oscar Haul for Kathryn Riefenstahl!” Now we have to start over and/or get a third person for the Frances and Bikowsky stuff. Grrrrr. Not to mention that very few good words rhyme with Bikowsky.

  7. bmaz says:

    @JTMinIA: @pdaly:

    Um, maybe not. See my UPDATE/ADDENDUM to the main post. There are some remarkable similarities with Bikowsky and the film character, but I think I was out of line in how definitive I thought it was. Please take a look at that before picketing!

  8. What Constitution? says:

    The road to glory and success — let’s see, John Brennan’s name is withdrawn by Obama for a “senate-confirmable” post such as National Security Advisor because his role in the Bush torture regime renders him too risky to put up for confirmation… but Obama hires him through the side door and ends up putting this damaged goods in charge of unilateral unconstitutional presidential assassinations and a drone program run amok. Check. The spook attributed with concealing material intelligence directly attributed to allowing 9-11 to even happen, who then was moved into position to have direct involvement in the despicable and publicly-pilloried El Masri debacle is … fed to the propaganda film ministry (wanna bet whether they got her real cv before depicting her as they did?) to discuss classified shit. Check.

    What happens to actual good people in this mill? I guess we have to ask Dawn Johnsen about that. Because it’s pretty clear that the slimier, the better as far as advancement in the GWOT Order goes.

  9. JTMinIA says:

    @bmaz: I can picket against Kathryn “Leni Riefenstahl” Bigelow regardless of whether it turns out to be Frances Bikowsky, I believe. Maybe we’ll stick with the signs we have planned.

    Love the Big Lebowski ref, though.

  10. Jeff Kaye says:

    @bmaz: I’d think a composite figure of sorts, but there’s no reason to believe that this picture is telling the truth of what went on at all. A lot of self-serving spin.

    I hate the fact I’ll have to see the movie to ascertain for myself what it is. I can’t even accept the statements of the filmmakers, because notoriously in the world of art, what an artist intended and the reality of what they created are two different things.

    Just saw John Ford’s Fort Apache the other night. It was intended as a paean to the US Army and its battle against the native Americans. But, if you leave off a seemingly tacked on speech at the very end, the film comes off as an extraordinarily brutal condemnation of that very war. Interesting, eh? Especially when you consider that it was a post-WWII movie. You can see, and even more feel the ambivalence about the great military endeavor the military had just been through. Because it was by no means all heroism, and those who went through it often went to some pretty dark and awful places in their own nature.

  11. bmaz says:

    @Jeff Kaye: Well, and Bigelow/Boal have admitted that they used composite characters (I think as to “Ammar” the individual tortured). So that is very possible.

  12. Mike says:

    CIA personnel who oversaw the obstruction of al Qaeda investigations before 9/11 were advocates of the torture policy. For Bigelow and Boal to ignore this and then play the “journalistic accuracy” card is nauseating. How do you make the decision to include desperate 9/11 phone calls at the beginning of the movie while ignoring the fact that the CIA knew al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar were in the US planning for a massive attack and then deliberately withheld that information?

    The national debate should not be about torture. It should be about the context of the entire war on terror which if understood better would make the use of torture even more grotesque.

  13. Jeff Kaye says:

    @Mike: “CIA personnel who oversaw the obstruction of al Qaeda investigations before 9/11 were advocates of the torture policy.”

    I can tell you this was also true of DoD personnel, particularly those at JFCOM. The names are there in the footnotes to the SASC report, if anyone wishes to follow them up. Simply cross-reference them to the story of DO5, which I wrote about with Jason Leopold earlier, that was told to stop tracking Bin Laden. After 9/11, a key counter-terrorism official currently in Obama’s CT apparatus was instrumental in covering-up the work of DO5 from Congressional investigators. (I’m going to write this all up quite soon. — But it wasn’t just CIA.)

    The fact false confessions through torture were used to rev up the “war on terror” is what directly links the torture issue (and the personnel involved) to the entire WOT, as you correctly suggest.

  14. orionATL says:

    an agent with an -sky name.

    oh, no!
    the cia has been had, by a kgb-like russian spy org – again!!

    but wait a minute, black sites in romania, macedonia, poland, …?

    look on the positive side, it(she) could be a talented green card “acquisition”.

    watch? warning? or advisory? my bones feel another cia f-up in the outing.

    but then, i am soooo cynical.

  15. orionATL says:


    if there were obstructions, they were for what i have long believed: that cheney and
    bush looked the other way at any potential attack on the u.s. mainland because they were hoping that aq would give them a causus belli to attack iraq and “secure” its oilfields.

  16. rosalind says:

    Just got home from a special screening of “Les Miz” where while standing in line I saw a striking woman walking towards me. My mind raced with a hundred questions I wanted to throw at her, but the brain wouldn’t synthesize any of them down. So Kathryn Bigelow walked past me undisturbed into her special screening of “Zero Dark Thirty”.

    Should the opportunity present itself again, I will do better.

  17. shekissesfrogs says:

    @Jeff Kaye

    Don’t forget, for example, Richard Blee.

    Here is the secrecykills article “Who is Rich Blee?” in which the CIA threatened the authors about releasing names of those responsible in the CIA for failure to stop 9/11, and
    :”Frances” is mentioned there. She also hid information from the FBI about the USS Cole attack- actively obstructed justice is how it’s put, but she made it through the CIA OIG’s 9/11 investigation unscathed.

    Richard Blee at History Commons. There’s a lot of good information on this page about who covered up 9/11 and it looks like this Frances person is still keeping watch over the bodies.

  18. shekissesfrogs says:

    More from “Who is Richard Blee”

    We have confirmed that Frances is the person described in New Yorker journalist Jane Mayer’s book The Dark Side as having flown in to watch the waterboarding of terrorist Khalid Sheikh Mohammad without being assigned to do so. “Its not supposed to be entertainment,” superiors were said to have told her.

    In late 2009, a Jordanian double agent with a suicide vest was brought into a CIA base in Khost, Afghanistan, exploding himself and killing seven CIA personnel. It was the deadliest day for the Agency in over two decades. The security failure has been widely criticized. A source informs us that the internal investigation into that matter singles out Frances and the then-head of CTC for interfering with the instincts of the Base Chief on the ground. “They told her not to search the source, that it would offend him,” claims our source.

    Who is Frances and who is she working for? Really.

  19. Kevin Dann says:

    Thanks so much to the author (name?) who has pulled together this possible true identity of the “Maya” character. I had come to similar conclusions, but continue to search high & low for any alternative media discussions of this. Thanks too to the commentators; is anyone here in NYC and planning to picket the film tomorrow (AMC Loews Village 7)? The only Facebook site calling for boycott is run by folks who object to the film because it might make Obama look good and other such nonsense.

  20. bmaz says:

    @Kevin Dann: I am the author, but as you can discern from the Update, I am not sure about my initial conclusion. In fact, I think it may have been more wrong than right. From best indications, “Maya” is a composite character derived mostly from another female CIA officer referred to in other works by the pseudonym “Jen”. It does seem that there may still be some characteristics pulled from “Frances”, but unlikely that it is even close to a majority.

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