Political power play
in the Jason Bourne Films

Political power play in the Jason Bourne Films

Jason Bourne to Special Operations Officer Alexander Conklin: "I'm on my own side now"

Jason Bourne to Special Operations Officer Alexander Conklin: "I'm on my own side now".

The Bourne Film Series

The three first Bourne films were published in 2002, 2004, and 2007. They were commercially and critically successful. The first film is loosely based on Robert Ludlum's novel of the same name. The second and third films are not connected to the novel.

My special interest is the films' descriptions of the inner workings of the fictitious Central Intelligence Agency Special Activities Division "Treadstone", later called "Blackbriar". This description was apparently inspired by the memoirs of the father of director and producer Doug Liman. The father, Arthur L. Liman, worked in the National Security Agency (NSA) under President Ronald Reagan and served as chief counsel for the Senate during the Iran-Contra Affair

"Of particular inspiration were Liman's father's memoirs regarding his involvement in the investigation of the Iran-Contra affair. Many aspects of the Alexander Conklin character were based on his father's recollections of Oliver North. Liman admitted that he jettisoned much of the content of the novel beyond the central premise, in order to modernize the material and to conform it to his own beliefs regarding United States foreign policy."[note]

In other words, Arthur L. Liman served in the same role as Pamela Landy does in the films.

A summary of the plot:

  1. The Bourne Identity (2002): A man who has lost his memory attempts to discover his true identity. He discovers that his name is Jason Bourne, and that he seems very apt to avoid getting killed by those attacking him. Apparently, his task has been officially unsanctioned assassinations managed by CIA's Special Operation Treadstone. Now he is the target for the same kind of assassination attempts because he lost his memory and failed to carry out a task. In the end of the film Jason Bourne declares: "I'm on my own side now". The film was directed by Doug Liman and produced by Doug Liman, Patrick Crowley, Richard Gladstein, Frank Marshall and Robert Ludlum. The main character, Jason Bourne was played by Matt Damon.
  2. The Bourne Supremacy (2004): Jason Bourne is once more hunted by the conspiracy surrounding the CIA and its Special Operation Treadstone. CIA's internal detective Pamela Landy uncovers two corrupt employees who used Treadstone to let $20 million disappear. This and the following film were directed by Paul Greengrass and produced by Doug Liman and Frank Marshall.
  3. The Bourne Ultimatum (2007): Jason Bourne escapes from Moscow, Russia, and travels to Paris, London, Madrid, Tangier, and New York City to uncover his real identity, while the CIA continues to send assassins after him. His plan is "Someone started all of this and I'm gonna find them", and he carries it through.

The footnote references to the films use A-B-C as shown here:

A Killing Squad with Legislative, Judiciary and Executive Power

In the third film CIA Deputy Director Noah Vosen explains the equally ranked Pamela Landy what makes the Special Operations special.

Pam: What's going on? ... What's Operation Blackbriar? ... Do you wanna tell me, or should I call Kramer and ask him? ...

Vosen: It is now the umbrella programme for all our black ops. Full envelope intrusion, rendition, experimental interrogation is all run out of this office. We are the sharp end of the stick now, Pam.

Pam: Lethal action?

Vosen: If we have to, sure. That's what makes us special. No more red tape. No more getting the bad guys caught in our sights, then watching them escape while we wait for someone in Washington to issue the order. ... Oh, come on. ... You've seen the raw intel, Pam. You know how real the danger is. We need these programmes now.[note]

In the first film the Special Operations section is called Operation Treadstone. In the second and third film, it is called Operation Blackbriar.[note] Here are three characteristics of the operations:

Example 1: In the first film Special Operations Director Alexander Conklin orders Danny Zorn to activate all other assassins to get rid of Conklin's own subordinate Jason Bourne. Legislation, judgement and execution are all combined in one sentence: "I want Bourne in a body bag by sundown.""[note]

Conklin: "I want Bourne in a body bag by sundown."

Conklin: "I want Bourne in a body bag by sundown."

Example 2: In the middle of an operation Deputy Director Noah Vosen is selecting a Special Operations employee as the next target for an assassin. Pamela Landy protests against this sudden death sentence. Noah Vosen declares that he will continue until he is the winner:

Pam: Noah, she's one of us. You start down this path, where does it end?

Vosen: It ends when we've won.[note]

Vosen: "It ends when we've won"

Vosen: "It ends when we've won".

Research Questions

According to these Special Operation officers, the intelligence service has turned over all means of power to the Special Operations. The Special Operations is allowed to define its way of work by itself. That is the basis for my research questions:

  1. Has the management of the intelligence service taken any precaution against the Special Operations' possible abuse of its accumulated power?
  2. Has the management taken precaution against internal power plays?
  3. Is the Special Operations allowed to define not only its way of work, but also the desirable outcome?

Assassinations, Power Plays and the Special Interest

Rules and Regulations of Assassination

Assassination is an organized form of murder, the killing of an individual, named person. The killing is done by an assassin who is motivated by his relation to an organization, not by his relation to the subject. If the police or other parties want to find the murderer by looking at the motive, they cannot find any connection between the subject and the assassin unless they know of the conspiracy. That makes the assassin hard to find. There are a number of characteristics:

  1. Murder is illegal. This is a general rule all over the world, for example in the sixth commandment: "You shall not murder". Police and military forces may be allowed to use violence, but are not allowed to kill named individuals without legal, public proceedings.
  2. The assassination is done by an organization, not by an individual. There are three roles in this conspiracy: An assassin, an officer in command, and the middlemen.
  3. All conspirators know that the murder is illegal. They choose to break the universal rule to obtain a special interest.
  4. All conspirators know that to protect themselves and their organization they must keep the murder secret. If the connection is revealed, both the assassin and the other members of the organization may be prosecuted for murder. The organization's rules and practices will enforce the secrecy.
  5. To obtain a neutral, professional handling of the murder, the victim is called a target or subject and the assassin is called an asset.[note]

All conspirators taking part in an assassination are guilty of both murder and of keeping their murder conspiracy secret. They are using two sources of organizational power described below:

Gareth Morgan: Images of Organization

In 1986 Gareth Morgan published Images of Organization where he is using various metaphors to scrutinize our perceptions of organization.[note] One of them he calls "The Political System Metaphor": To view an organization as based on the members' fight for their special interests.

Power plays: An organization's politics is most clearly manifest during the conflicts and power plays that sometimes takes place openly, and the rest of the time in the many smaller intrigues in any organizational activity. Morgan's definition:

"Organizational politics arise when people think differently and want to act differently."[note]

Conflict will always be present in organizations. Whatever the reason, and whatever form it takes, its source rests in some perceived or real divergence of interests. Morgan cites Tom Burns for the opinion that most modern organizations actually encourage organizational politics because they are designed as systems of simultaneous competition and collaboration. People must work together, and they fight each other over resources and career advancements. The conflicts are symbolized in."... the hierarchical organization chart, which is both a system of cooperation and a career ladder that people are motivated to climb."[note]

An organization embraces several rationalities rationality is always interest based and changes according to the perspective. The metaphor helps explore the myth of organizational rationality. The questions one should always ask:

Sources of Organizational Power

The result of a conflict will mostly depend on the power relations between the actors involved. The actor who has the most power wins. But what is power? Morgan defines power in an ambiguous way, as both a resource and a relationship:

Here is a list of sources of power in organizations. Out of Gareth Morgan's 14 sources I have selected the eight that I consider the most important[note]:

1. Rules and regulations are often used in power plays related to autonomy or interdependence. The actors both seek to impose rules on others and to escape restricting consequences on their own behalf. And rules are also there to protect their creators.

2. Control of knowledge and information: If people define a situation as real, it is real in its consequences. Power falls to the person who can structure attention and define the decision-making process. This is the place for lies and half truths.[note]

3. Formal authority: Formal, bureaucratic authority is typically associated with the position one holds. However, formal authority is only effective if it is legitimized from below. The formal leader can set the rules.. The formal leader is often using both 1. Rules and regulations and 4. Management of meaning.

4. Management of meaning: Leadership involves an ability to define the reality of others. All leaders must be aware of the power of evocative imagery and should give a great deal of attention to the impact of what they say and do. This is valid for both formal and informal leaders.

5. Networks and alliances: Successful networking and coalition building both involves winning friends and pacifying potential enemies. This is the place for the common people who want to exchange one favour for another.

6. Control of scarce resources:If the resource is in scarce supply and someone is dependent on it, it can be translated into power. This is an interesting fact for managers that have access to uncommitted resources that can be used in a discretionary way.

7. Control of decision processes: Here Gareth Morgan distinguishes between three elements:

8. Control of boundaries:Boundaries are here the interface between different elements of the organization. Many people in positions as a secretary, etc. may be able to acquire more power than their formal status suggest, simply by determining who will have access to the boss.

Method Problems

Everything becomes political when we use the political metaphor. It is almost always possible to see signs of political activity. Everything turns into power plays, and we can hardly imagine other ways of regarding the organization. [note]

Although the language of organizational theory often presents ideas relating to organizational politics in relatively neutral terms they are by no means as neutral as they seem.[note] Here are some of the problems:

Fiction and reality: I am well aware that these Universal Picture films are fiction, not reality, and that the film action stories are not true in any absolute sense. All three films have been major commercial successes. A lot of people have bought cinema tickets and videos, because they wanted to be entertained by a story with at least some kind of connection to reality. Universal Pictures have chosen to describe the fiction by expressly mentioning the CIA, showing the CIA headquarters in Langley, etc. not using any disclaimer warning that this is fiction and should not be connected to any real person or organization.[note]

I will make that disclaimer: This should not be connected to any real person or organization. But then I have also second thoughts:

  1. Unavoidably, the description in the films may look like real-life CIA, but I do not know whether that is correct.
  2. It depends on the context. Here, the context is three films about a clandestine intelligence organization[note].
  3. The intelligence organization's work may be interesting, but by definition we do not know what goes on
  4. We can use fiction to imagine what may be going on.
  5. I regard the surveillance methods described in the Bourne films as realistic. Somewhere in the world there are intelligence services using the same surveillance methods as in these films.
  6. There may also exist Special Operation sections using assassination schemes as described.

In my analysis I have chosen to describe the actions in the Jason Bourne films as a case study but don't forget that this is fiction!

Introduction to the Analysis

In the following sections I analyze selected examples of the Treadstone and Blackbriar Operations starting from within:

  1. Corruption using a position of trust for dishonest gain
  2. Internal power plays in the Special Operations section
  3. Actions against Jason Bourne
  4. External surveillance and actions

Corruption using a Position of Trust for Dishonest Gain

I have chosen to go into detail with the films' description of corruption in the intelligence service. I consider that the most obvious example of power play. Here is a group fighting for its personal interests and against the service's common interests.

The case of corruption was set up by Deputy Director Ward Abbott and Special Operations officer Alexander Conklin. Abbott and Conklin supplied the Russian Yuri Gretkov with information so that he could get hold of $20 million owned by CIA. Gretkov bought cheap oil leases for the money and is now one of the richest men in Russia. Pamela Landy has found what probably was Conklin's share, $760.000, on his Swiss bank account. According to what Gretkov tells Abbott at the end of the second film, also Abbott had his generous reward.

The Assassination of the Russian Politician Vladimir Neski

In the second and third film Deputy Director Pamela Landy is working as detective or financial reviewer in the CIA.

Jason Bourne's first task was to kill the liberal, Russian reformist politician Vladimir Neski. Neski was an outspoken critic of Russian oil privatization and condemned corruption.[note] Bourne was monitored by Special Operations Officer Alexander Conklin: This is a live project and you are go. We'll see you on the other side. And after the task: Congratulations, soldier. Training is over.[note] This assassination was not registered in Bourne's file.

When Pamela Landy visited the hotel room after Bourne nearly was arrested there, she told: I recognise this room from a photo.[note] Pamela Landy were investigating signs of Conklin being corrupt, and Jason Bourne's first assassination ever was not a regular CIA task but was a cover-up for the $20 million that disappeared.

In the following, Pamela Landy is in a meeting with the CIA Director Martin Marshall, Director of Operations Ward Abbott and others in Langley. Ward Abbott is defending Conklin:

Pam: Seven years ago, $20 million of CIA funds disappeared during a wire transfer through Moscow. In the investigation that followed, we were contacted by a Russian politician, Vladimir Neski. Neski claimed we had a leak and we'd been ripped off by one of our own. ... We never found out. We were negotiating a meeting with mr. Neski when he was killed.

Marty: By who?

Pam: His wife. The case had gone cold until we found a source, another Russian in Berlin, who claimed to have access to the Neski files. We thought we had another bite at the apple. Turns out he assassin was one of our own Jason Bourne. I know Treadstone's not a very popular subject here around, but we found some interesting things when we dug a little deeper. This is Conklin's personal computer. His Treadstone files are bloated with code keys and case files that he had no clearance for. Buried in the hard drive we found a deleted file with an account number to a bank in Zurich. At the time of his death, he had a personal account in the amount of $760.000.

Abbott: You know what his budget was? We were throwing money at him. Throwing them at him and asking him to keep it going.

Pam: It was his own account. He was up to something[note].

Ward Abbott killing Danny Zorn

Later in the second film Pamela Landy orders Danny Zorn to review the buy in the beginning of the second film where she lost the Neski files again. Zorn shows Abbott how Bourne's fingerprint on the electric wiring probably is an attempt to frame Bourne. Abbott does not want Zorn's findings to be known, so he kills Zorn:

Danny Zorn: I wanted to show you before I show Landy

Danny Zorn: I wanted to show you before I show Landy

Zorn: My box work's done, but I wanted to show you before I show Landy. I came down here last night because none of this makes sense. Conklin was a nut. But a traitor? I just can't get there.

Abbott: What do you have, Danny?

Zorn: All right. You put a four-gram Kel on here, it's gonna take out power to the building. Two charges were supposed to go off. The second one, the one over here, didn't go off. Firstly, this is nothing. It's a sub-line for the breaker above. Secondly, why put the charge all the way down here? If you're good enough to get in here, you'd know you don't need this. Bourne would know.

Abbott: It was staged?

Zorn: Is it a slam dunk? No. But what if somebody were covering their tracks by blaming Conklin and Bourne? What if Bourne didn't have anything to do with this?

Abbott nods: Show me again.

Zorn: All right: Well you put ...[Abbott breaks the neck of Zorn, turns off the light, and leaves.][note]

Ward Abbott revealed by Jason Bourne

Later the same day Abbott looks very tired. He enters his hotel room and calls his conspirator Yuri Gretkov in Moscow. This is a connection not known so far.

Gretkov: Da

Abbott: It's me. They're onto Neski.

Gretkov: This is not a clean phone

Abbott: They can't prove anything without Bourne. Kill Bourne and you kill this investigation.

Gretkov: I'm afraid Ward, the time has come for us to part company.

Abbott: Listen Yuri, you bought those oil leases with 20 million in stolen CIA seed money. You owe me.

Gretkov: I gave you your cut. We both got rich. I don't owe you anything.

Abbott: The plan can still be salvaged. Just get Bourne. You hear me? He's still out there. Get Jason ...

The call is disconnected by Gretkov. Bourne appears from the back of the hotel room.

Abbott: I don't suppose it would do me much good to cry for help?

Bourne: Not much. You killed her.

Abbott: It was a mistake. It was supposed to be you. There were files linking me to the Neski murder. If the files disappeared and they suspected you, they'd be chasing a ghost for 10 years.

Bourne: So he got in the way. Is that why Neski died? Is that why you killed Marie?

Abbott: You killed Marie ... the minute you climbed into her car. The minute you entered her life, she was dead.

Bourne uses his gun to push Abbott down on the table.

Bourne: I told you people to leave us alone. I fell off the grid. I was halfway around the world.

Abbott: There's no place it won't catch up to you. It's how every story ends. It's what you are, Jason. A killer. You always will be. [wishing to be dead] Go ahead, go on, Go on! Do it! Do it!

Bourne: She wouldn't want me to. That's the only reason you're alive.[note]

Bourne leaves the room with the dialogue recorded on a dictaphone. He leaves behind a gun for Abbott.

A little later, Pamela Landy enters Abbott's hotel room. She suspects that he killed Zorn.

Abbott: I'm a patriot. I served my country.

Pam: And Danny Zorn? What was he?

Abbott: Unlucky. Collateral damage.

Pam: So what do we do now?

Abbott: I'm not sorry. [He commits suicide with Bourne's gun][note]

Analysis of the Power Play

The two trusted officers Abbott and Conklin use their knowledge in a dishonest way to get a share of the $.20 million. As expressed by Gretkov: I gave you your cut. We both got rich. Later, they proceed the same way by ordering Jason Bourne to kill the witness Vladimir Neski before he met CIA officials.

Abbott and Conklin fight for their special interests, which are not in the interest of the organization. Primarily they avoid their 3. Formal authority towards their superiors.

Instead, they use three kinds of organizational power for the betrayal:

Towards his subordinate Bourne, Conklin uses two other kinds of organizational power:

Conklin: This is a live project and you are go. We'll see you on the other side.

[After the killing:]

Conklin: Congratulations, soldier. Training is over.[note]