interview with John Perkins author of 'Confessions of an Economic Hit Man'

by Daniel McLeod

Z magazine, December 2005


Late last year a small publisher released an autobiography titled Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins. Written in the style of a spy novel, Perkins recounted his years as chief economist for MAIN, an international consulting firm based in Boston. His job there was to produce inflated economic forecasts to be used by the World Bank to plan massive engineering and construction projects in Third World nations. Young and successful, his career afforded a charmed life through the 1970s, filled with travel, women, money, and professional prestige.

Despite the outer trappings of mainstream success, Perkins was morally torn by his true role as an economic hit man (EHM). A tongue-in-cheek term for his profession, this moniker revealed more about his trade than any corporate title. "Economic hit men," Perkins writes, "are highly paid professionals who cheat countries around the globe out of trillions of dollars. Their tools include fraudulent financial reports, rigged elections, payoffs, extortion, sex, and murder." His explicit tasks as an EHM were to justify World Bank loans funneling money into the pockets of huge U.S. contractors (such as Bechtel and Halliburton) and to bankrupt those nations soon after the corporations were paid. Saddled with debt, these countries could easily be tapped for UN votes, military bases, or access to coveted natural resources by their creditors, namely the U.S. government.

Perkins's resume as an EHM included Indonesia, Panama, Ecuador, Columbia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and other strategically important countries. The ultimate goal for EHMs was simple: to expand U.S. corporate empire.

With little to no major media coverage, Confessions sold 150,000 copies within months and appeared on over 20 bestseller lists, including those of the New York Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, and USA Today. Penguin (a subsidiary of the British conglomerate, Pearson) published the paperback in December 2005.

DANIEL MCLEOD: You place economic hit men in a long line of imperial agents including Roman centurions, Spanish conquistadors, and 18th and 19th century colonial powers. All of these approaches relied on military force, but EHMs are different. Can you recount the origins of this strategy for empire building?

JOHN PERKINS: I really think it came out of our supposed success in Iran in the early 1950s. The Iranians had democratically elected a president (Mossadegh) and he began to clamp down on the oil companies, insisting that they pay fair taxes so the people of Iran would be recompensed for the oil being taken out of their country. The British and the U.S. were involved there and our oil companies were very resentful of this so we decided to get rid of Mossadegh. We figured that we could not send in troops because Iran was bordering the Soviet Union, which had nuclear weapons.

Rather than sending in troops, we sent a CIA agent, Kermit Roosevelt, Teddy Roosevelt's grandson. With a few million dollars, Kermit managed to overthrow the democratically elected Mossadegh and replace him with the Shah of Iran, who we all know was a despot-and a friend of the oil companies. This experience taught the people in charge-what I refer to as the corporatocracy-that creating empire by using agents like Roosevelt was a lot cheaper and safer than the old military model. The only problem was that Roosevelt was a CIA agent and had he been discovered, the U.S. government would have been very embarrassed, to say the least. Soon after that, the decision was made to employ people from private businesses-making it difficult to trace these activities back to Washington.

What happens when an EHM fails to persuade a leader of a country to sign on to the empire's agenda?

That's pretty rare. In a few short decades EHMs were successful a majority of the time. But there are occasions when they failed, as I failed with Panama's president, Omar Torrijos. At such times, what we call the jackals, CIA-sanctioned assassins, are sent in to overthrow governments or assassinate the leaders-as in Guatemala with Arbenz, Chile with Allende, and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. When I failed with Omar Torrijos-who refused to play the game-his private plane went down in a fiery crash. We all knew it was a CIA-supported assassination.

What was your relationship with Omar Torrijos?

I liked Omar Torrijos as a person. When I was sent to Panama to bring him around, he told me, "I realize that if I play your game I will become very wealthy, but that's really not my interest here. I want to help my poor people so you can either get out of the country or stay here and do it the way I want to do it."

I went back to Boston and relayed this message to my boss at MAIN. We decided to stay in Panama. After all, we could make some money and felt we still had a chance to bring Torrijos around. The thing was I knew he was probably in trouble because I knew the system was built on the assumption that leaders are corruptible and when a leader like Torrijos is not corruptible, it sets an example throughout the world. Torrijos had staked his reputation on convincing the U.S. to turn the canal over to Panama. So even though I really appreciated the firm stand he took, I feared the jackals would be called in.

In your book you recount your greatest accomplishment as an EHM. You refer to it as "the deal of the century, the deal that changed the course of world history, but never reached newspapers." What was this deal and your role in brokering it?

In the early 1970s OPEC basically shut down the oil flow, resulting in long lines of cars at gas stations. We were afraid that we were going to have another depression comparable to the 1930s. As a result, the U.S. Treasury Department came to me and other EHMs and retained us to find a way to make sure the U.S. would never again be held hostage by OPEC. We knew the key was Saudi Arabia because it controlled more oil than anybody else in the world and we knew the House of Saud, the royal family, was corruptible. We worked out a deal whereby the House of Saud would reinvest petrol-dollars in U.S. treasury securities. The Treasury Department would use the interest earned on these investments to pay U.S. companies to westernize Saudi Arabia-to build power plants, industrial parks, and whole cities out of the desert.

Over the past decades this has amounted to trillions of dollars paid to U.S. companies to build Saudi Arabia in the image of the West. Part of the agreement also was for Saudi Arabia to maintain the price of oil at a level acceptable to us and we would agree to keep the House of Saud in power. It was an amazing deal that worked incredibly well until today. It's now falling apart for a number of reasons. One is that the House of Saud is very unpopular in Saudi Arabia and throughout the Muslim world because they struck this deal and have surrounded Islam's most sacred sites with petrochemical plants, McDonalds, and other symbols of materialism. Another reason is that we are powerless, given our failure in Iraq, to control the Middle East and the rising tide of Muslim extremism.


I imagine a common response is that all this sounds like a ploy hatched by a few cigar-smoking capitalists in a dark room miles underground; that this is conspiracy theory.


It's certainly not a conspiracy. By definition a conspiracy is illegal. None of this is illegal. The way economic hit men work should be illegal, but because we write the international laws it isn't. Members of the corporatocracy get together on occasion and many of them spend a lot of time in Washington, DC, but they don't have to do it in dark rooms smoking cigars because they're not doing anything illegal. These people are constantly moving back and forth at the highest levels through an open door policy. One year a guy is president of the world's biggest oil company and the next he's vice president of the United States or holding a cabinet position. After serving his or her term, she or he goes back into the oil, chemical, or manufacturing company as CEO. It's a crazy system. It's tailor-made for corruption.


Are the corporatocracy agenda setters conscious that theirs is an imperial one at odds with the stated ideals of U.S. democracy?


The ones at the top are very aware of it. They know exactly what they're doing. They're empire builders. Now within these organizations-the World Bank, Bechtel, Halliburton, Monsanto, and all these other companies-there are hundreds of thousands who are not conscious of it. They are really the pawns. They should be conscious, but it's easy to be in denial. Our educational institutions and our systems of reward make it easy to convince yourself that what you're doing is really helping poor people. That's one of the reasons I wrote the book. I don't want anybody to be in the position where they can't clearly see what they're doing.

An intriguing aspect of your story is that you were very conscious of the role you were playing as an EHM. How were you able to justify your actions?

I had been a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador and that made me conscious of the broader picture. Nonetheless, once I ended up being an EHM, I had people like World Bank president Robert McNamara patting me on the back. I was lecturing at Harvard and many other institutions around the world. I was praised for what I did. I wrote papers that were published and it was all above ground. Based on my Boston University degree in macroeconomics, I could rationalize it by saying that what I was doing increased GNP. However, the problem is that increasing GNP often only helps those at the very top of the totem pole. It does not help the people living in cardboard shacks in Jakarta or Caracas. Even though I knew in my heart what I was doing was wrong, in my head I could justify it because it was right according to every institution I worked for and because of my education. I could turn a blind eye.

You wrote this book to help Americans recognize the true nature of our society and our agency within it. Are people being reached for the first time?

We've received a tremendous number of letters and emails. My publisher at one point had an intern go through these to come up with the most common theme and what she came up with was paraphrased like this: "I knew this was happening in my heart, but whenever I talked about it people called me paranoid or crazy so I stopped talking about it. Now I've read your book and my suspicions have been confirmed. Not only am I going to talk about it, but I'm also going to act upon it." Hearing that is extremely gratifying-especially the part when they say they are not only going to talk about it, but are also determined to act on it. I'm not sure what people are actually doing, but I know that they are making an impact in just talking about what's going on.

After you quit the game, you wanted to write a book and come clean, but you received bribes and threats for over a decade. What made you break your silence?

Shortly after 9/11, I went to ground zero and as I stood there smelling the charred flesh and seeing the smoke still rising, I knew I had to write this book and take responsibility for my past. What happened that day was a direct result of the empire building my fellow EHMs and I participated in. It was an act of mass murder by a mass murderer, but it represented the anger that seethes around the world. Osama Bin Laden has unfortunately become a hero not just in the Middle East, but also in much of Latin America and many other places. He shouldn't be in this position and I realized that the American people needed to hear the real story. I had to come clean in a way that would help Americans wake up to the corporatocracy and understand why U.S. policies stoke so much hatred. Unless we change direction, the future is a bleak one for the younger generations and we'll only change when we come to understand what's going on.

With Katrina, the quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan, rising resistance in South America, a shaky House of Saud, and the embattled status of the U.S. dollar, do you believe the corporatocracy is at a breaking point?

History tells us that no empire survives. This one is no exception. The U.S. has 5 percent of the world's population and we're consuming more than 25 percent of the world's resources. That's not a model that can be replicated. What we are is a failure that is causing unheard of inequality and environmental damage on a global scale. Ours is an empire in the throes of collapse.


Daniel McLeod is a mental health counselor, freelance writer and member of the Western Massachusetts Committee on Corporations and Democracy.

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