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The CIA is a force for irrationality: a review of the film “Syriana” (2005)

by Tony Nuspl, Ph.D. History

The name of the film was apparently inspired by the idea of a Pax Syriana, a broad peace in the Middle East that would remake the entire area into a less violent and less chaotic place, under the regional hegemony of a strong Arab state, working to build a better existence for Arab peoples generally, whatever particular nation or religion they might belong to in the Middle East.

Who are the good guys in the film “Syriana”? There are only two candidates among this ensemble cast: either the character Bryan Woodman (played by Matt Damon), the ambitious young man who, as financial adviser to “the Emirate,” can help, and/or the fictional Prince Nasir ruling over [insert the Middle Eastern country name of your choice here] with his revolutionary views about making changes in his country “the Emirate,” and by extension in the Arab world more broadly.

As the plot synopsis on IMDB would have it:

"The oil companies don't want Nasir to become Emir, because he wants the U.S. military bases out of his country, and he wants to build the country's infrastructure. Nasir also wants to make peace with others countries in the Persian Gulf and not waste money on unnecessary items such as expensive warplanes. Once they are united, they will control their own destiny by controlling their own oil."

At one point in the film, Prince Nasir is compared by Bryan Woodman to the Hashemite King Faisal I of Iraq. Faiṣal ibn Ḥusayn (1883 – 1933) was for a short time King of Greater Syria in 1920 and King of the Kingdom of Iraq from 1921 to 1933. In this way, there is a kind of filmic tie between "Syriana" and "Lawrence of Arabia" (1962 film). (Also of interest, Alexander Siddig, the actor who plays Prince Nasir here in Syriana, played the part of Prince Faisal in a 1990 made-for-television film, produced as a sequel to the David Lean classic film.) With the help of the historical figure T.E. Lawrence, Faisal organized the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire. By making the analogy with Faisal, and early twentieth-century history, the film suggests that the fictional Nasir would revolt too against the imperialist power interfering in the Arab world of his day, in this case the U.S., and Woodman is a kind of modern day Lawrence, dreaming of an independent Syriana, free to serve the interests of its people rather than those of corporate oil.

Another obvious comparison is between the fictional Prince Nasir and the historical figure from Iran:  Mohammed Mosaddeq, the first democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran. This analogy between Nasir and Mossadeq is all the stronger because of the oil politics that are the focus of the film. At the beginning of the 1960s, the Iranian Parliament had nationalized Iran’s oil industry, getting the country out from under the thumb of the British government-controlled Anglo-Iranian Oil Company; this new-found freedom on the international market was consolidated with Mossadeq's election in 1961. The imperial threat from which Mossadeq attempted to protect his country, albeit in vain, was that coming from imperial oil interests, as the British investment in Iranian oil fields was the largest overseas investment for the Brits, at the time. In the film, this allusion to Mossadeq is only slightly veiled: the oil interests of concern to the fictional Arab state are no longer those of the U.K. but rather those of the U.S.

As to the bad guys, the film asks its viewers to draw an inference. As one reviewer put it, the CIA's obsessive mentality that leads it to interfere repeatedly in the internal politics of the countries of the Middle East is a key problem:

[T]he realities of the economics of oil do not justify the U.S. obsession with Middle East oil and the need for special relationships with the regimes in the region to secure access to the oil, which is the
central plot line in Syriana. Prince Nasir, an heir apparent to the throne of a fictitious Gulf country,
is more interested in social and economic reform for his country than in catering to U.S. business interests and so grants natural-gas drilling rights to a higher-bidding Chinese company instead of
renewing the country's long-held contract with Texas energy company Connex (a perfectly economically rational and free-market decision). As a result, Dean Whiting (played by Christopher Plummer) – head of the law firm employed by Connex, and a D.C. power broker – tries to undo Nasir's deal with the Chinese by promoting his younger brother Prince Meshal (played by Akbar Kurtha), who will cater to American business interests, to be the aging emir's choice for succession. And ultimately, the CIA views the question of succession as a national security issue.

From: “Syriana: It's Not About the Oil” film review by Charles Peña, December 22, 2005, online:

There are at least three egregious examples in the film of CIA interference in the Middle East: 1) the sale of Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMs) to dodgy non-state actors by their operative (the sale goes horribly wrong); 2) the attempted assassination of a foreign head of state, here “the Emir” of an unnamed oil-rich country, while he's
visiting a third country as a dignitary (another botched operation by the CIA's operative working with outdated information in the rapidly changing situation); finally, 3) there is the other CIA misdeed chronicled in the film's ending scenes, involving the cowardly and callous use of drone missiles, fired from a safe distance to take out
a so-called “national security” threat. The CIA's self-serving distortion of so-called “national security issues” leads it to commit any number of misdeeds, in all of the above misadventures in the Middle East.

Much of what is depicted in the film is contrary to domestic U.S. law. In 1977, an executive order by President Gerald Ford commanded that “no employee of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination”; in 1981, acting on his own executive order, President Ronald Reagan ordered that: “No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.” The CIA's history of misguided interference in the region goes back at least as far as Mossadeq's overthrow, the 1953 Iranian coup (the CIA's “Operation Ajax”). As mentioned above, Mossadeq is most famous as the architect of the nationalization of the Iranian oil industry while he was Prime Minister of Iran, for which he became an early target of the CIA's extra-judicial murders; the agency deemed him to be a political figure “contrary to the national interests” of the United States.

Another evil that is treated in this film is the neo-conservative movement that continually presses for violent intervention, including illegal invasion, in order to “liberate” the oil resources of the Middle East. In the film, the Committee to Liberate Iran (CLI) looks and sounds a lot like the real-life Project for a New American Century
(PNAC), whose members have been described as American war criminals, partially responsible for the precipitate invasion of Iraq, in 2003. The fictional group's name sounds a lot like what was the original codename for the U.S. military's invasion of Iraq: Operation Iraqi Liberation (OIL). Danny Dalton, the oilman from Texas (played by Tim Blake Nelson, the erstwhile film director from Tulsa, Oklahoma, appearing here in a cameo), is given some of the worst self-condemning lines of the film, spoken as a representative of the CLI, personifying evil. Dalton's extremist views are voiced through an ideological veil, albeit his lines are delivered in the most hysteria-laden terms. The film would have you believe that a U.S. Department of Justice official, as well as the U.S. Secretary of State, cannot find the wherewithal to resist the belligerent message of the neo-cons in the CLI Although neo-conservatism and crony capitalism are not the same thing, the words spoken by Dalton in a monologue are treated as evidence for they're being the same, in the film review by Charles Peña (op.cit.)

Part of the interest of the film is the way that “the hero” of the film, Bob Barnes (played by George Clooney), learns to rebel against his previous willingness to act as a pawn in “national security” games played out on an international chess board, having participated in two out of the three above-mentioned botched operations. The
betrayal of their own intelligence officer, as the CIA attempts to lay the blame at the feet of an agent who has supposedly gone "rogue," is a very revealing story about the intelligence community's idea of justifiable disloyalty to career officers in the service. This attempt to find a fall guy for their interference and a patsy for their illegalities is botched too, as the betrayed CIA agent emerges with a clear conscience of how he was being used as a 'dispensable soldier' and changes his sympathies. Again there are parallels with Captain T. E. Lawrence (1888 – 1935), a relatively junior British intelligence officer from Cairo, an almost mythical figure who is the subject of David Lean's legendary film, and who eventually attained the rank of Lt. Col. The historical role of Lawrence is split or "doubled" in Syriana, part played by the fictional character Bryan Woodman (Damon), and part played by Bob Barnes (Clooney), illustrating the unintended consequences of Lawrence-type interference in the region.

Unfortunately, even in his attempt to compensate for his previous actions as an 'evil' agent of empire, Barnes unwittingly abets the handlers of the Predator, by delaying Nasir even longer, as the drone gets a lock on him. In the film, Barnes is a kind of Lawrence in reverse; rather than make good on his expertise on the Arab world, his loyalty, and his skills, Barnes is brought low, washed up, marginalized and demoted, only to be investigated by his own country, and forced to go on the lamb, in an abortive attempt to make the world right again. Clooney's character is perhaps a good example of the “anti-hero,” incapable of effecting change for the good, inferior to the situation in which he finds himself "thrown into action," and not fully comprehending the forces at play in his world. In other respects, Barnes is a portrayal in film of a real life intelligence analyst, Michael Baer, the author of the two books that provided the inspiration for the screenplay: ex-CIA officer Robert Baer's memoirs, See No Evil : The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism (New York: Crown Publishers, 2002), and Baer's second book, Sleeping With the Devil: How Washington Sold Our Soul for Saudi Crude (New York: Crown Publishers, 2003). The books Baer authored and his collaboration with the making of this film appear to be a kind of atonement for the author's previous affiliation with the CIA. Stephen Gaghan, the film's director, realized that Baer had "gone out there and done and seen things that he was not allowed to talk about, and wouldn't, but about which he was angry and also trying to make amends for".[3] According to Wikipedia: “Baer's book describes accusations against him regarding attempts to assassinate Saddam Hussein, while in the movie the figure whom Clooney is to assassinate is a benevolent, liberal prince.” In historical fact, as opposed to fiction portrayed on film, the United States made at least two attempts to kill Saddam with targeted air strikes, but both failed to hit their target, killing civilians instead.

To spell it out, the CIA's interference in the Middle Eastern oil markets is portrayed in the film as always being against the self-governing interests of the countries involved. The CIA's interventionism appears as an extension of U.S. corporate interests run amuck, distorting the rational economic decisions made by Middle Eastern countries regarding their oil resources, and interfering repeatedly in the rational functioning of the free market.
(Actually, reality is more complicated than the story presented in the film because, aside from controlling oil for national interests, or for the purposes of social reform, or for the economic betterment of Arab peoples, there is an attempt at supply-restriction and oil price fixing through OPEC, for the interests of the Middle Eastern oil-producing regimes of whatever stripe they may be, but this Middle Eastern cartel is not treated by the film at all.) It has been said that the film overestimates the power of the U.S. oil corporations, but as I read it, it is the serendipity between the crony capitalists and the intelligence-industry ideologues that creates the evil nexus in the Middle East region, according to the film. That the CIA is a force for irrationality in the Middle East is the point of the film, brought home most effectively by the film's final few scenes. As mentioned above, the film reads as a commentary on CIA involvement in Mossadeq's overthrow, in August 1953, which led to wildly irrational outcomes in Iran, the revolution of 1979 being directly tied to the debacle of U.S.-U.K.-sponsored coup in Iran.

Once you understand this point, the film does indeed attain closure. The ending is decisive, climactic, culminating in the dastardly deed committed by the CIA, resolving any doubt in the mind of the viewer about who the bad guys are. That this is disorienting for the American viewer is a testament to the power of film as a form of social criticism and the depth of the brainwashing about the CIA's supposed “usefulness” that afflicts most viewers in America. The lack of verisimilitude, however, in the choice of means used by the CIA in this fictional account may cause the viewer to pause: the assassination by a Predator drone would be evident as an American hit to both international and domestic critics. Were there a sequel to Syriana, it would presumably treat the court case against the CIA directors who violated international and domestic law in assassinating a foreign head of state, and/or heir to the throne. Be that as it may, the film makes very effective use of the technology to
update the metaphor of a Sword of Damocles hanging over the Emir's head, creating an effectively suspenseful moment, as we wait for the outcome. It is as if, with the four or five parallel stories woven together into a maelstrom of intrigue, coming together towards the film's climax, the only possible resolution to this story of
petrochemical geopolitics is a sort of Deus ex machina, to bring the play to a halt. The director's intent was to portray the CIA as “playing God.”

Ironically, one of the film's executive producers is on record (in the DVD extras) as saying that “there are no real bad guys in the film.” I take this as an example of a film's script writer and/or its director pulling a fast one on the moneybags who are needed to bankroll the film. Likely, if they had divulged to the executive producers what the real point of the film was, to portray the CIA as the bad guys, the funding may well have disappeared and the film not been made. The film was produced by Participant Productions (now “Participant Media”; also co-produced in a deal with Warner Bros), and its films are intended to inspire viewers to advocate for social change.

It was 46 years ago that Harry Truman drew attention to the nefarious purposes to which the CIA's operations were being put. On Dec. 22, 1963, in an editorial published in a newspaper, Truman wrote:

I think it has become necessary to take another look at the purpose and operations of our Central Intelligence Agency…. There is something about the way the CIA has been functioning that is casting a shadow over our historic position and I feel that we need to correct it. For some time I have been disturbed by the way CIA has been diverted from its original assignment [collection, analysis, and reporting]. It has become an operational and at times a policy-making arm of the Government. This has led to trouble and may have compounded our difficulties in several explosive areas…. I never had any thought that when I set up the CIA that it would be injected into peacetime cloak and dagger operations. The last thing we needed was for the CIA to be seized upon as something akin to a subverting influence in the affairs of other people.”

available online:


This demand made by President Truman that the CIA be stripped of its interference-role in foreign affairs, and relegated to its original intelligence-gathering function, is being echoed today. According to Ray McGovern, co-founder Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS, est'd 2003), the full Congressional authority to go to war should be used prior to any CIA drone launched in “peacetime” attacks against undeclared enemies; in other words, given the CIA's war-making capacity, it should not be allowed to interfere surreptitiously, illogically, or contrary to the will of the U.S. Congress, which has the sole and exclusive authority in our constitutional system for declaring war. Furthermore, the CIA's intelligence-gathering function can serve (and in fact, has served, even in the most contemporary settings) to prevent U.S. interference abroad, especially to prevent warmongers in the U.S. executive branch and/or the Pentagon from mucking up another country in the Mid-East. The CIA needs to rid itself of its black sheep, however, if it is no longer to be the “bad guy.” It can only serve a constructive purposes, according to McGovern, who previously served as an analyst with the CIA for 27 years, if the agency is reined in to serve its original purpose as Truman envisaged it, namely, “to seek truth and speak truth to power.” (source: "Break the CIA in Two." by Ray McGovern. 2009 http://www.afterdowningstreet.org/node/48637)

Even this way of apologizing for CIA misdeeds, however, depends upon the conclusion that the CIA has an 'evil twin.' Perhaps the history of the CIA is so bad that it is argument for the agency's thorough disbandment.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported


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The Trouble with Drones

By Scott Horton, Harper's Magazine
May 3, 2010

excerpt only:

In my view, there are two major problems with Obama-era drone warfare, which in general looks like Bush-era drone warfare on steroids.

First, as applied on the battlefield along the historic Durand Line, the current campaign can’t be reconciled with the agreed premises for the separation of military and intelligence community activities in the National Security Act of 1947. That marked the launching point for the CIA, and it proceeded from the recognition that the agency should be an essentially civilian operation. It would have the right to use lethal force in certain settings, of course, and it would even have limited paramilitary capabilities, but its essential function would be intelligence gathering and analysis, and it would be distinguished from military operations, which would be in the hands of the Department of Defense. The current drone-warfare program marks the first time in U.S. history that a state-of-the-art, cutting-edge weapons system has been placed in the hands of the CIA, marking the continued evolution of the CIA as a paramilitary force with advanced tactical weaponry. Moreover, this occurred without the sort of rigorous policy discussion involving Congress and the entire national-security community that should have occurred.

The CIA is itself a civilian agency, not a military force accorded privileged combatant status under the Geneva Conventions. Moreover, the drone program has been developed, rolled out and implemented with exceptionally heavy reliance on civilian contractors. Not only did contractors design and fabricate the drones, they also play the key operational role in maintaining the drones, in arming and piloting them. The finger behind the trigger that releases death on the villages of North Waziristan is likely as not that of a civilian contractor. Moreover, the United States is now relying heavily on at least six private security contracting firms to do on-the-ground work in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area, much of it inside of Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province. These civilian contractors are collecting information used to guide the predator drones to their strikes; they serve as the “eyes” of the predator drone force. They are usurping a traditional core military reconaissance function.

All of this is occurring at the same time that the United States, as a matter of legal policy, denounces prisoners taken in the current hostilities as “unlawful” or “unprivileged” combatants and presses charges against them for using lethal force. But private security contractors and CIA operatives are every bit as “unlawful” and “unprivileged” under the laws of war. America’s posture on this issue is shamefully hypocritical, and needlessly so. American law and doctrine provide the correct answers. They just need to be remembered. Indeed, the segregation between intelligence and military functions envisioned in 1947 was driven by precisely this policy concern about training to and compliance with the laws of armed conflict, a fact that seems now largely forgotten. The CIA should not be running predator drone strikes in a combat theater, and civilian contractors need to be removed from the operation of drones outfitted with lethal weaponry. The current operations constitute a serious distortion of existing command-and-control doctrines surrounding military weapons systems. As a weapons system, the drones must be committed to the uniformed military, which should use the drones following well-established protocols covering military operations.

My second major concern goes to the power of example that the United States is now setting with respect to the use of drones away from an acknowledged battlefield, especially in connection with targeted killings. No weapons system remains indefinitely the province of a single power. Drone technology is particularly striking in this regard, because it is not really all that sophisticated. ...


Remarks delivered at New York University Law School Center on Law and Security’s Seventh Annual Global Security Forum, May 1, 2010.

"The CIA is using bogus intel for drone strikes as it and the military did to net terrorist suspects."


CIA admits role in 1953 Iranian coup

by Saeed Kamali Dehghan and Richard Norton-Taylor
The Guardian, Monday 19 August 2013

The CIA has publicly admitted for the first time that it was behind the notorious 1953 coup against Iran's democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mosaddeq.

Britain, and in particular Sir Anthony Eden, the foreign secretary, regarded Mosaddeq as a serious threat to its strategic and economic interests after the Iranian leader nationalised the British Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, latterly known as BP. But the UK needed US support. The Eisenhower administration in Washington was easily persuaded.

Mosaddeq's overthrow was aimed at making sure the Iranian monarchy, under the Shah, would safeguard the west's oil interests in the country.  It consolidated the Shah's rule for the next 26 years until the 1979 Islamic revolution. The coup against Mossadeq still given as a reason for the Iranian mistrust of British and American politicians, Mosaddeq epitomised a unique "anti-colonial" figure who was also committed to democratic values and human rights.


CIA Admits Carrying Out 1953 Coup in Iran

by Amy Goodman, for DemocracyNow!

18 Aug 2013

The CIA has finally admitted its role in the overthrow of Iran’s nationalist government 60 years ago today. On August 19, 1953, the government of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh was toppled in a coup organized by U.S. and British intelligence. Mossadegh was targeted after nationalizing Iran’s oil industry, sidelining the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which later became known as British Petroleum, or BP. The crushing of Iran’s first democratic government ushered in more than two decades of dictatorship under the Shah, who relied heavily on U.S. aid and arms. The CIA has now fully declassified an internal report acknowledging the coup "was carried out under CIA direction as an act of U.S. foreign policy." See our related coverage here of the CIA’s role in the 1953 Iran Coup.


Drone Strike Served CIA Revenge, Blocked Pakistan’s Peace Strategy
by Gareth Porter, November 08, 2013

President Barack Obama supported the parochial interests of the CIA in the drone war over the Pakistani government’s effort to try a new political approach to that country’s terrorism crisis. The CIA drone strike that killed Mehsud stopped the peace talks before they could begin.

The most important success achieved by Pakistan in countering Taliban violence in the past several years has been to reach accommodations with several militant leaders who had been allied with the Taliban but agreed to oppose Taliban attacks on government officials and security forces.

Sharif and other Pakistani officials were well aware that the United States could unilaterally prevent such talks from taking place by killing Mehsud or other Taliban leaders with a drone strike.

The government lobbied the United States in September and October to end its drone war in Pakistan – or at least to give the government a period of time to try its political strategy.


The CIA had an institutional grudge to settle with Mehsud after he had circulated a video with Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, the Jordanian suicide bomber who had talked the CIA into inviting him to its compound at Camp Chapman in Khost province, where he killed seven CIA officials and contractors on Dec. 30, 2009.

The CIA had already carried out at least two drone strikes aimed at killing Mehsud in January 2010 and January 2012.

Killing Mehsud would not reduce the larger threat of terrorism and would certainly trigger another round of TTP suicide bombings in Pakistan’s largest cities in retaliation.

Although it would satisfy the CIA’s thirst for revenge and make the CIA and his administration look good on terrorism to the US public, it would also make it impossible for the elected Pakistani government to try a political approach to TTP terrorism.

Well, this news story is not about drones, but it is about the irrational, counter-productive outcome of CIA meddling, in an area riven by drone attacks.

CIA Directive: No More Fake Vaccination Programs
After 2011 Scheme, Polio Surges in Pakistan
by Jason Ditz, May 19, 2014

The real vaccination program was forced from Pakistan by the scandal, and dozens of real vaccination workers have been killed by the Taliban under the assumption that they too are CIA.


More on the CIA as a force for irrationality.

"As U.S.-Afghanistan Sign Troop Deal, CIA-Backed Warlord Behind Massacre of 2,000 POWs Sworn-In as VP"

September 30, 2014


with Amy Goodman


Susannah Sirkin, director of International Policy at Physicians for Human Rights.

Jamie Doran, independent documentary filmmaker who directed the 2002 film "Afghan Massacre: The Convoy of Death".


summary: Abdul Rashid Dostum, Afghanistan’s new vice president. is one of Afghanistan’s most notorious warlords, Dostum’s rise to the vice presidency comes despite his involvement in a 2001 massacre that killed up to 2,000 Taliban prisoners of war. The victims were allegedly shot to death or suffocated in sealed metal truck containers after they surrendered to Dostum and the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance. Dostum, who was on the CIA payroll, has been widely accused of orchestrating the massacre and tampering with evidence of the mass killing. For more than a decade, human rights groups have called on the United States to conduct a full investigation into the massacre including the role of U.S. special forces and CIA operatives.

"The million refugees now flooding into Europe are refugees of a pipeline war and CIA blundering."
~Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.

Why the Arabs don’t want us in Syria

They don’t hate ‘our freedoms.’ They hate that we’ve betrayed our ideals in their own countries — for oil.


2/23/16, 8:50 AM CET

Updated 9/16/16, 10:12 AM CET

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