Nada Bakos, who joined the manhunt team on Season 3 of HISTORY’s Hunting Hitler, is a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst and targeting officer who joined the CIA in 2000 and began to study illicit finance networks, with a focus on North Korea. But after the September 11 attacks in 2001, she volunteered to work in the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, where she was instrumental in hunting down Abu Musab al Zarqawi, al-Qaeda’s leader in Iraq, who was killed by U.S. forces in 2006. Bakos talks with HISTORY about the day-to-day business of working for the CIA and strategies for finding people who don’t want to be found.
What are the similarities between your role on ‘Hunting Hitler’ and your work, say, hunting a terrorist like al-Zarqawi?
It really was analogous. Because when you’re trying to paint a picture of where someone might end up going—and what their strategy was and what their intent was—it was basically the same thing. By the end of World War II the Nazi leadership had dissolved into a network from a bureaucracy and a hierarchical structure, which is very similar to what Zarqawi was doing inside of Iraq. He didn’t have a very significant hierarchy. His was literally a network of nodes and power centers, so that was very similar to what the Nazi leadership ended up doing after they were fleeing Germany.
Do you actually believe that Hitler escaped to South America, or to anywhere?
It’s funny, because you take all these history classes, and studying World War II, you’re not really taught the history of what happened at the end, necessarily, with some of the leadership. We talk about the rebuilding of Europe and what happened to the United States and the global economy. We talk about the trials and who was actually caught.
But what I found through doing this show was how much of a significant portion of the Nazis’ leadership escaped. And for me, what was more compelling than the question of whether Hitler could have gotten out was the fact that so many of these [other Nazi leaders] got out and continued to conduct the same type of atrocities in South America that they did in Germany. It looked like [Hitler] could have gotten out of Germany much easier than I ever anticipated. Do I think he did? That’s probably a spoiler, right?
My inclination is to be very skeptical. I just look at the information in front of us, and what we can verify, so you’ll have to just wait and see what I think at the end. But I am definitely the most skeptical one in the entire show.
How would you describe the job of a targeter?
A targeting officer is a person who is analyzing information for the purposes of making it actionable—whether it’s working with the military or something the Agency itself could do.
It was interesting work. I got to read secrets. The job was arduous, going through mountains and mountains of information. There’s nothing sexy about having to sit in front of your computer for 12 hours a day trying to find and piece together tiny bits of a puzzle and trying to expand that into a much larger picture—so it could give context to whatever you are working on the operation side. It’s tactical: You’re strategizing how to elicit that information. How do you find it? How do you go about targeting that individual you’re trying to find?
What do you like about secrets?
It’s not even about the secret thing. I think for me it was just the masses of information that I had access to. That at my fingertips I was able to digest and understand loads of information on the topics that I was working on. It’s a luxury having access to that much of information.
And what about an analyst? What do they do?
So an analyst at the CIA is actually the person who is reading all of the information that comes in from different sources and defining the analytical picture. They’re writing products, they’re briefing the policy makers, all in coordination with other analysts who are working on related topics. The whole purpose of these pieces of intelligence is to inform the president, inform congress and other policy makers.
How do you track down someone who doesn’t want to be found?
I mean everybody leaves a trace—whether it’s during the era of the internet or not. Everybody leaves some kind of footprint and some kind of pattern that you can find. Every human being is driven to seek out certain things: food, water, shelter, connection with other people. There are very basic instincts that drive a person to exist. And those leave a pattern.
What are the vulnerabilities of people on the run?
Vulnerabilities of people on the run would include if they had a medical issue—understanding what that medical issue is and what they needed to treat that—family members, close friends, if they were interested in a particular area of the world, what they’d considered home.
Can you give any examples from your time targeting al-Zarqawi?
He was an evil maniac, so when we were looking for him, we were looking for traces of him. It was really all about trying to figure out where within the network would he feel safest. Where does he want to communicate from? How does he want to live and exist in day-to-day life? We knew he had family members who are around him once in a while. Trying to envision what it was that drove him to exist in the way he wanted to. What did he want his life to look like?
What kind of personality it takes to succeed in what you did at the CIA?
Typically, people who are attracted to working for the CIA are inquisitive and typically a little bit Type A. They’re interested in solving puzzles. They’re okay with living in the gray area and with ambiguity. And they’re driven just by interest in subject matter. Analysts typically look for evidence. They’re trying to connect pieces together so they can paint a much larger intel picture. So, personality type attracted to working as an analyst at the CIA typically is the same type of person who is a natural skeptic: They question and they weigh objective evidence.
What about when you’re more involved in operations? The Agency isn’t like too many other employers, is it?
The CIA is a unique organization for the United States government because its job is to spy on other people. You’re not there to enforce the law. You’re there to break laws in other countries. And you’re trying to figure out a way around, to get information to help national security of the United States. So, working in an organization like that does attract people who would not be attracted necessarily to law enforcement.
The consequences, especially national security, can be life and death. And that type of work isn’t for everybody. You have to make life-and-death decisions periodically about operations or extracting people or trying to help an asset—or even targeting somebody.
How does working in the CIA affect you? Is it hard on relationships to have to keep everything so close to the vest?
If you’re a case officer, it changes you. If you’re an analyst, it fine-tunes you. The training that you get in the CIA fine-tunes the abilities you already have and in some cases, it will change you. For me, it was a little of both.
Once you work for an organization like the CIA and you have a clearance like that, you are restricted from discussing a lot of things that might seem innocuous to some people. Where I travel to that week… or that year…or who I met with. It affects discussions I would’ve had: You know, you come home and your spouse, your boyfriend, girlfriend asks “what did you do today?” You can’t even tell them. You can’t explain to them, well today I was actually working on targeting this individual and then we found them. You can’t go tell the whole explanation. Office politics are even difficult to talk about because you sometimes can’t identify the people that worked there. So, it creates a really unique situation you have to adjust to.
Tune in to the season premiere of Hunting Hitler, Tues Jan 2 at 10/9c on HISTORY.