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.
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
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
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
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.
New Global Economy