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December 12, 2012

In movie, she's a hero. In real life, it's complicated.

WASHINGTON — She was a real-life heroine of the CIA hunt for Osama bin Laden, a headstrong young operative whose work tracking the al-Qaida leader serves as the dramatic core of a Hollywood film set to premiere next week.

Her CIA career has followed a more problematic script, however, since bin Laden was killed.

The operative, who remains undercover, was passed over for a promotion that many in the CIA thought would be impossible to withhold from someone who played such a key role in one of the most successful operations in agency history.

She has sparred with CIA colleagues over credit for the bin Laden mission. After being given a prestigious award for her work, she sent an e-mail to dozens of other recipients saying they didn't deserve to share her accolades, current and former officials said.

The woman has also come under scrutiny for her contacts with filmmakers and others about the bin Laden mission, part of a broader internal inquiry into the agency's cooperation on the new movie and other projects, former officials said.

Her defenders say the operative has been treated unfairly, and even her critics acknowledge that her contributions to the bin Laden hunt were crucial. But the developments have cast a cloud over a career that is about to be bathed in the sort of cinematic glow ordinarily reserved for fictional Hollywood spies.

The female officer, who is in her 30s, is the model for the main character in "Zero Dark Thirty," a film that chronicles the decade-long hunt for the al-Qaida chief and that critics are describing as an Academy Award front-runner even before its Dec. 19 release.

The character Maya, which is not the CIA operative's real name, is portrayed as a gifted operative who spent years pursuing her conviction that al-Qaida's courier network would lead to bin Laden, a conviction that proved correct.

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