In the 2012 Hollywood hit Zero Dark Thirty, a red-haired Central Intelligence Agency analyst played by Jessica Chastain travels to a secret CIA prison and watches a colleague waterboard a screaming Al Qaeda suspect, then lock him in a box a little bigger than a mini-fridge, to make him talk.
In 2002, red-haired CIA analyst Alfreda Scheuer, then known by her maiden name Bikowsky, traveled to a secret CIA prison to watch the torture of Al Qaeda suspect Abu Zubaydah, who was waterboarded and locked in a dog box, Senate investigators reported.
The CIA had granted the filmmakers unprecedented access to agency officials, and outlets from NBC News to The New Yorker reported that Chastain’s character was patterned partially on Scheuer, citing her position but omitting her name because the agency said her work was classified.
For two decades Scheuer was a central figure in some of the major controversies of America’s war on extremist groups, including secret detention centers and brutal interrogations. CIA operatives normally operate in a dark, shadowy world, but Scheuer’s experiences found the spotlight.
Scheuer retired from her most recent role as deputy chief of Homeland and Strategic Threats late in 2021 and agreed to talk to Reuters this year. It’s the first interview she’s ever done, she said, and she decided to speak to make clear she was not forced out of the agency but left on her own terms. By policy, the CIA doesn’t discuss individual employees or confirm whether they worked at the agency.
Over several calls that lasted two and half hours, Scheuer said she couldn’t discuss individual cases because they were classified. But in a broad sense, she said waterboarding cited in government reports was not torture, insisted such techniques can work and said any criticism of her was largely the result of her taking risks to combat terrorism.
“I got bloodied,” she said, alluding to criticism of her agency in government and media reports, and kept coming back to try again and again to do something. “I’m proud that I wasn’t on the sidelines. I didn’t bury my head in the sand.”
The New Yorker once dubbed Scheuer, again citing her position but omitting her name, as the Queen of Torture, writing that she gleefully participated in torture sessions.
Scheuer called the description, which found its way into multiple media reports, false and a caricature. She believes a male operative would not have been described the same way. “I got that title because I was in the arena,” she said. “In fact, I raised my hand loud and proud and you know, I don’t regret it at all.”
A Senate investigation does not allege Scheuer personally tortured any suspects. She said her role was as a subject matter expert, not an interrogator. There is a very clear line between an interrogator and a debriefer, she said. A debriefer is a subject matter expert who asks questions.
The CIAs press secretary, Susan Miller, declined to comment about Scheuer, but said simply that CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques ended in 2007.
Now out of the CIA, Scheuer’s career has taken a turn: She is a life coach, running a business called YBeU Beauty, focusing on helping women look good, feel good, and do good. It is a world removed from her prior life, with the website featuring photos of her, thoughtful and confident.
“I know what it’s like to leave your comfort zone to try something new,” she writes on the site. “I had finished a three decades + career as a senior government executive leading teams, mostly females, tasked with no-fail missions, taking smart risks, and even making life-and-death decisions. I loved every minute of it.”