The True Story – The Bourne Identity (History Channel HD Documentary)
Jason Bourne is the super-skilled CIA spy with no memory of his past life. He is trained to assassinate enemies of the USA without the knowledge of the government. Bourne was created by author Robert Ludlum and portrayed by Matt Damon in a trilogy of films beginning with 2002’s The Bourne Identity.
Ludlum used his contacts within the CIA to make his novels as realistic as possible. He even used a real-life assassin, Carlos the Jackal, as the villain. For the first Bourne movie, director Doug Liman was inspired by another true story. He changed the villain from an individual to an organisation – a secret cell within the CIA known as Operation Treadstone. He based this cell on the one exposed by the Iran-Contra affair in the 1980s, when members of the CIA were found to be operating black ops in Nicaragua.
Liman had a personal connection with the Iran-Contra scandal because his father led the investigation. “I got to see how spies worked in the real world,” he says. “Bourne wouldn’t be Bourne if it weren’t for the fact that my father ran this investigation.” The guilty parties in the Iran-Contra
affair provided the template for the villains in The Bourne Identity.
Liman also ensured that Jason Bourne’s skills matched those of elite agents – including his stunt driving skills and his ability to fight in confined spaces. “He keeps moving, he’s got good balance and he uses whatever’s around him to accomplish his mission,” says combat instructor Brandon Sommerfield. Bourne is primed to withstand torture techniques such as waterboarding. Remarkably, real-life agents are trained the same way.
Another key piece of Bourne’s character is his inability to recall his identity. He is a ‘Manchurian Candidate’ – an operative brainwashed to become the perfect assassin. Incredibly, the CIA spent over 20 years trying to create just such an agent. Recently opened files show that these experiments began in the 1950s, when the US military suspected the Chinese of brainwashing soldiers. They resolved to develop mind-control techniques of their own.
The MKULTRA programme began by looking at hypnosis. In one experiment, a nurse was hypnotised into firing an unloaded gun at a woman. Yet hypnosis was soon found to be unreliable, so doctors turned to mind-altering drugs – including LSD. In one task, employees spiked each other’s drinks without their knowledge.
A disturbing phase of tests began when CIA doctors experimented on mentally ill patients. “Psychiatric patients are a good group to experiment on because they’re disenfranchised, disempowered and they’re very easy to discredit,” says Dr Colin Ross. In the early 70s, schizophrenic Karen Wetmore spent seven months in a straitjacket under the ‘care’ of CIA doctors. On one occasion, she was given 35 electro-shocks in 40 seconds, in what may have been an attempt to induce amnesia. “I just remember wondering what I had done to be treated like this,” Karen says.
In 1975, the US Senate put an end to the programme. Yet critics argue that the CIA has continued its efforts to harness mind control by experimenting with electromagnetic fields. Meanwhile, the issue of assassination has returned in force, with the US Government’s efforts to eliminate members of Al-Qaeda in the wake of 9/11. Doug Liman believes the public remains ambivalent on the issue – comparing it to the slaughter of animals. “We’re grateful for the meat,” he says. “Just don’t tell us how you did it.”