Political power play
in the Jason Bourne Films


Research Question 1

Has the management of the intelligence service taken any precaution against the Special Operations' possible abuse of its accumulated power?

Seen in the intelligence service's perspective the concentration of power seems to have been a success in two operations where Jason Bourne was the master of two apparently accidental deaths:

  1. Serbian general drowns in a boating accident (prior to film 1)
  2. Syrian journalist dies in a car crash (prior to film 1)

But the concentration of power is a problem when it is used to solve private interests or to get rid of other Special Operation's employees:

  1. Ward Abbott orders the assassination of the Russian Politician Vladimir Neski to avoid being revealed as a fraud (prior to film 1)
  2. Alexander Conklin orders the assassination of Nykwana Wombosi (prior to film 1)
  3. Alexander Conklin sends assassin no. 1 to kill Jason Bourne and Marie Kreutz
  4. Alexander Conklin orders the assassination of Nykwana Wombosi
  5. Alexander Conklin sends assassin no. 2 to kill Bourne
  6. Ward Abbott orders the assassination of Special Operations Director Alexander Conklin
  7. Noah Vosen sends assassin no. 6 to kill Bourne and Ross
  8. Noah Vosen orders the assassination of Station Chief Neal Daniels
  9. Noah Vosen sends assassin no. 7 to kill Bourne and Nicky
  10. Noah Vosen sends assassin no. 6 to kill Bourne – again

The problem is demonstrated by the fact that out of 12 attempts, six targets were external, and four targets were Special Operations employees[note]. In other words, the Special Operations is a very dangerous place to work.

The answer to the research question is no. Apparently, the management of the intelligence service has not taken precautions against the Special Operation's possible abuse of power. On the contrary, CIA Director Ezra Kramer approved CIA Deputy Director Noah Vosen's assassination of CIA Station Chief Neal Daniels.

Research Question 2

Has the management taken precaution against internal power plays?

The analysis of the power play in the sections on corruption and the internal power plays shows that the employees are using all kinds of organizational politics to fight each other:

The answer to the research question is no.  Apparently, the management of the intelligence service has not taken precautions against internal power plays. On the contrary, CIA Director Ezra Kramer takes part in a conspiracy against Pamela Landy.[note]

Research Question 3

Is the Special Operations allowed to define not only its way of work, but also the desirable outcome?

Here is the chain of reasoning for research question 3:

  1. The intelligence service is not controlling the Special Operations section. The section is given the total legislative, judiciary and executive power over its own operations.
  2. The reason for the absolute power is that the management of the intelligence service does not want to know what goes on – it only wants to enjoy the fruits of the secret actions.
  3. All Special Operation participants want a share in the accumulated power for their own purpose. They engage in a major fight for power.
  4. In the course of events, the desirable outcome changes from being a killing squad serving the intelligence service to be a purely internal one: self-obsessed, fighting to keep its secrets, not showing attention to the world around it.
  5. As the section's means of power include lethal action, the members of the section start killing each other.
  6. The participants' power play changes the organization's power into powerlessness.

When Jason Bourne applied for the programme, Dr. Hirsch assured "Your mission will save American lives"[note]. That is a common incantation in U.S. foreign policy. As Dr. Hirsch is preparing Bourne to be an assassin, it is a morbid statement. And, when looking at the programme's results, it is completely misleading. The desirable outcome changed from saving American lives to targeting American citizens.[note]

When Noah Vosen selects Nicky as the next target, Pamela Landy interferes: "Noah, she's one of us. You start down this path, where does it end?" Vosen answers: "It ends when we've won". Vosen is defining the desirable outcome like the generals of World War I who not only commanded their armies, but also were left to decide the goal. On both sides the generals wanted the total victory and left out the possibility of negotiation or withdrawal. The result was a war of attrition and a massive loss of soldiers – on both sides.

And how is the balance between internal and external actions in the three films?

  1. In the first film everybody are engaged in power plays, and the organization is not performing any external actions – except that Alexander Conklin orders the assassination of Nykwana Wombosi once again, this time to gain time internally.
  2. The second film is dominated by Pamela Landy's fight for unveiling the case of corruption – completely internal
  3. In the third film CIA is engaged in finding Simon Ross' source and killing Bourne. Noah Vosen two times calls it "a national security situation" – but it is not foreign powers threatening the existence of the nation, it is the Special Operation fighting itself. The perspective is completely internal.

The answer to the research question is yes. The Special Operations changes its desirable outcome to be self-obsessed and not show attention to the world around it.

Why Are the Bourne Films So Good?

David Conquering Goliath

In the first film Jason Bourne only wanted to recover his identity and keep distance from CIA "I swear, if I even feel somebody behind me there is no measure to how fast and how hard I will bring this fight to your doorstep. I'm on my own side now".[note]. As CIA continues to send assassins to kill him, Bourne is targeting his old organization.

In the second film Bourne let himself arrest on purpose, because he wants to get in contact with those who killed Marie.

In the third film, he declares to Marie's brother: "Someone started all of this and I'm gonna find them"[note].

Bourne's total victory is described by a television reporter at the end of the third film:

"The President convened an emergency cabinet meeting today to discuss the growing scandal over an alleged government assassination programme, code-named Blackbriar. CIA Director Ezra Kramer is under criminal investigation for authorising the programme, which in several cases may have even targeted US citizens. Two agency officials have already been arrested. Dr. Albert Hirsch, the alleged mastermind of Blackbriar programme, and CIA Deputy Director Noah Vosen, the programme's operational chief. Meanwhile, mystery surrounds the fate of David Webb, also known as Jason Bourne, the source behind the exposure of the Blackbriar programme. It's been reported that Webb was shot and fell from a Manhattan rooftop into the East River ten storeys below. However, after a three-day search, Webb's body has yet to be found."[note]

We watch it happen, and that is very good entertainment.

Realistic Plot and Real Locations

Robert Ludlum's inspiration was what made him angry. In a television interview for an earlier book, "The Aquitaine Progression" (1984), he said:

I write about something that either outrages me or intrigues me or amuses me. And I'm outraged by, I guess, an awful lot. I think, you know, this is the age of fanaticism in a way, and I think fanaticism feeds upon itself, and I loathe fanatics. And so I think I use whatever minor imagination I have to try to attack them, really.

Jason Bourne's part as CIA's assassin is much more probable than for example James Bond's part as a British secret agent. James Bond attracts attention by using luxury hotels, sports cars and expensive women. Bourne is very modest in his choice of hotels and cars and has nearly no time for the women. He participates in car hunts with Marie's old Morris Mascot, a Moscow Lada taxi, and a New York police car.

Henry Morrison was Ludlum's literary agent. He explains Ludlum's way of creating a realistic description:

For a long time, he and his wife would travel. He would go to locations, and I think Bob took about 4,000 pictures. He had pictures of army vehicles, He had pictures of people's landry on roofs. He knew the locales, so that when he was writing the story it was almost like a movie location, because he could lay out all those pictures and remember what everything looked like.[note]

Universal Pictures has followed up on Ludlum's realistic style. The films are taken on location in Zurich, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, London, Madrid, Tangier, etc.[note]

It is relatively easy to be an individual author like Ludlum, who invents the plot and criticizes the CIA. The creative process takes place in the author's mind. As an author Robert Ludlum only needed to find someone who would publish the book. The creative process is much more complicated when the process is to create a film. Then the creative process takes place in cooperation between writers, directors, and producers.

Universal Pictures has done a brilliant work when changing the story into the three films.

Technology: Less Realistic

In the films, CIA seems to have unlimited access to information about foreign citizens: Cross-referencing Marie's grandmother's old telephone bills, hacking Ross' e-mail account, using all closed circuit TV cameras on Waterloo station – and turning off the cameras before killing Ross. CIA's largest technological problem at Waterloo station seems to be that Ross is using a telephone where CIA does not know the number.

But in the real world there is spent a lot of time working with the extraction of data. Customer databases are full of typos and identical names, passwords have been changed, old data are in unaccessible formats, and it takes time to make comprehensible cross-references.

The least realistic example: In the second film, Jason Bourne is using a gadget to clone John Nevins' SIM card. In the film it is a very quick process: Nevin draws his gun. Bourne jumps up, hits Nevins and the guarding policeman so that they are unconscious, clones Nevin's cell phone SIM card with a device from Bourne's bag, takes Nevin's car keys, leaves the room and blocks it from the outside, all in 25 seconds.

According to Wikipedia, a realistic time for extracting the authentication key from a SIM card is approximately 4-8 hours. There is 40% probability of damaging the card in the process. Additionally, the attacker must know the SIM card's PIN code. The quick and realistic solution would be to steal the telephone. [note]

The usability expert Jakob Nielsen has written about the exaggerated IT usability in the movies: User interfaces in film are more exciting than they are realistic, and heroes have far too easy a time using foreign systems. It matters, but ... we go to the movies to be entertained, not to learn realistic task performance. "So, go ahead and employ user interfaces and interaction techniques that are entertaining and would never work in the real world."[note]

Some Weaknesses

1. CIA and its Special Operations section are dependent on the cooperation of others:

2. In the first film Ward Abbott asks his subordinate Conklin about Treadstone:

Abbott: ... What's this Treadstone?

Conklin: You're asking me a direct question?

Abbott: Yes

Conklin: I thought you were never gonna do that.

Abbott and Conklin share this knowledge already, in general because Conklin receives a lot of money for his project, in special because they are the conspirators that made Bourne kill Neski.[note]

3. Film no. 2 ends with Bourne in New York. He tells Pamela Landy that she looks tired. The New York scene in film no. 2 is a kind of "happy end shortcut" to tell that Bourne survived and found his way home. He tells Pamela: "Get some rest, Pam. You look tired"[note]. This scene turned out to be superfluous when film no. 3 was realized. Film no. 3 continues with the wounded Bourne on the run in Moscow, and much later he appears in New York.


A Real-World Mistake

Oliver North mug shot

Oliver North mug shot

In the real world there will always be mistakes: The Alexander Conklin figure is partly based on Oliver North, who in 1985 worked on finding a way to let the U.S Government fund the Nicaraguan contras and bypass the Congress' restrictions and several laws. The funding was financed by selling weapons to the Iranian government and letting the money pass through private entities and foreign governments. A money transfer was messed up when Oliver North's secretary, Fawn Hall, transposed the numbers of North's Swiss bank account number. A Swiss businessman, suddenly $10 million richer, alerted the authorities of the mistake.[note]

Appendix and Notes



Morgan's sources of organizational power

Sources of organizational power in this text

1. Formal authority, p. 172

3. Formal authority

2. Control of scarce resources, p. 173

6. Control of scarce resources

3. Use of organizational structure, rules, and regulations, p. 175

1. Rules and regulations

4. Control of decision processes, p. 178

7. Control of decision processes

5. Control of knowledge and information, p. 179

2. Control of knowledge and information

6. Control of boundaries, p. 181

8. Control of boundaries

7. Ability to cope with uncertainty, p. 183


8. Control of technology, p. 184


9. Interpersonal alliances, networks, and control of "informal organization", p. 186

5. Networks and alliances

10. Control of counterorganizations, p. 187


11. Symbolism and the management of meaning, p. 189

4. Management of meaning

12. Gender and the management of gender relations, p. 191


13. Structural factors that define the stage of action, p. 196


14. The power one already has., p. 198




[1] Sources: interviews on the Bourne Trilogy Bonus Disc, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Bourne_Identity_(2002_film, and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iran-Contra_affair.

[2] C 0:42:18, Pamela Landy at Noah Vosen's office

[3] Operation Treadstone is directed from the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Operation Blackbriar is directed from the centre of New York.

[4] A 0:26:00. Conklin and other members of the team in a large office in Langley

[5] C 0:51:00. The discussion is described in details below in the section "Internal Power Plays in the Special Operations Section"

[6] Examples: C 0:11:20 and C 0:48:40: "Give the asset subject location. and the route between the subject's hotel and the bank"

[7] Gareth Morgan 1997: Images of Organization, 2nd ed., Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks.

[8] Morgan 1997 p. 160

[9] Morgan 1997 p. 167 f., quoting Tom Burns 1961: "Micropolitics: Mechanisms of Organizational Change." Administrative Science Quarterly 6: 257-281.

[10] Morgan 1997 p. 209

[11] Morgan 1997 p. 199

[12] In the appendix is a list of all 14 sources, including page numbers in Morgan 1997.

[13] Morgan 1997 p. 179 f, possibly inspired by this early work: Gibson Burrell and Gareth Morgan 1979: "Sociological Paradigms and Organizational Analysis", London and Exeter: NH. Heinemann

[14] Morgan 1997 p. 209 ff.

[15] Morgan 1997 p. 160

[16] Morgan 1997 p. 196

[17] Morgan 1997 p. 209

[18] On the contrary, Universal Pictures includes a quite different disclaimer on the DVDs, only dealing with the extra material: "Any views or opinions expressed in interviews or commentary are those of the individuals speaking and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of Universal Pictures International, its parent, or any of its affiliates or employees."

[19] As described above by Morgan: If people define a situation as real, it is real in its consequences.

[20] B 0:58:02, newspaper headlines

[21] B 1:00:14 and B 1:04:06, in flashbacks

[22] B 1:10:07

[23] B 0:26:15

[24] B 0:58:43

[25] B 1:11:17

[26] B 1:14:20

[27] Morgan 1997 p. 186

[28] Morgan 1997 p. 172 f.

[29] B 1:00:14 and B 1:04:06, in flashbacks

[30] B 0:58:02, newspaper headlines

[31] A 0:11:26

[32] A 1:13:52

[33] A 1:03:50

[34] A 1:23:52

[35] A 1:44:37

[36] Landy is playing with words: "the marshal" is CIA Director Martin Marshall.

[37] B 0:23:47

[38] B 1:11:17

[39] A 1:45:20

[40] C 0:42:18 – the same scene as where Vosen explains Pam about Operation Blackbriar.

[41] C 0:35:29. Noah Vosen: "Track Daniel's passports". Passports are in plural, i.e. Daniels has more than one passport, probably all of them supplied by the CIA.

[42] C 0:47:16. Vosen is telling CIA Director Kramer "We have found Daniels"

[43] C 0:51:00

[44] C 1:06:41

[45] A bit like the corrupt officers Abbott and Conklin – except that Nicky's breach of loyalty is obvious.

[46] C 1:33:43

[47] C 1:36:00

[48] C 1:34:31

[49] C 1:32:30

[50] A 0:30:42

[51] A 1:37:34

[52] Car chase B 1:24:00 to B 1:30:00

[53] B 0:31:39

[54] C 0:04:00

[55] C 0:09:11

[56] The scene featuring Bourne desperately trying to catch a glimpse of Paz in the London Underground after Ross is gunned down is, according to director Paul Greengrass, a wink to the New York City Subway chase in one of his favorite films, The French Connection. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Bourne_Ultimatum_(film)

[57] A 0:30:42

[58] A 1:14:24

[59] C 0:11:20

[60] C 0:14:35

[61] B 0:12:00

[62] A 1:37:34

[63] External: The Serbian general, the Syrian journalist, Vladimir Neski, Nykwana Wombosi (twice), Marie and Ross. Employees: Bourne (five times), Conklin, Neal Daniels and Nicky

[64] I am well aware that power fights will always exist in organizations, but the list of Special Operation employees killing each other is extraordinary.

[65] C 0:34:36, C 1:33:43 and C 1:36:00

[66] C 1:40:27, television report: "... the programme, which in several cases may have even targeted US citizens."

[67] A 1:37:34

[68] C 0:09:11

[69] C 1:40:27

[70] [1]Interviews on The Ultimate Bourne Collection, bonus DVD. Considering laundry on roofs: The scenes where Bourne is hunted by Moroccan police on the Tangier rooftops may be inspired by the 1987 James Bond film The Living Daylights.

[71] I am aware that some of the Zurich scenes are filmed in Prague, and that some of the Moscow scenes are filmed in Berlin – but that is not a problem for the realistic feeling. Source: Wikipedia.

[72] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SIM_cloning

[73] Jakob Nielsen mentions two problems: 1. Research funding and management expectations are biased. When you see something work as part of a coherent and exciting story, you start wanting it. 2. Users blame themselves when they can't use technology like they have seen someone do in a film. Source: http://www.useit.com/alertbox/film-ui-bloopers.html

[74] A 0:12:14. Compare to B 0:26:15, where Abbott tells about Conklin: "You know what his budget was? We were throwing money at him. Throwing them at him and asking him to keep it going."

[75] B 1:36:23

[76]  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iran-Contra_affair and "Iran Contra Hearings; Brunei Regains $10 Million". New York Times. 1987-07-22