Confessions of an Economic Hit Man - reviewed by Thomas Kiely
The Missing Link: John Perkins's "Confessions of an Economic Hit Man" by Thomas Kiely
Once in a while an important gap between our knowledge of the tortured extremes of American foreign policy and a thinking person's darkest suspicion is suddenly filled in. The secret U.S. government documents discovered by author James Bamford uncovering what has become known as "Operation North Woods" are one such example. In his May 2001 book on the National Security Agency "Body of Secrets" Bamford discloses this chilling list of suggestions, developed in 1962 by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on ways to conduct terror operations against the citizens of the United States which would then be falsely blamed on Cuba and used as a pretext for an invasion.
For those who have always wondered why, after so many decades of foreign aid, poverty still is so pervasive in the developing world, insider John Perkins comes forward and offers an explanation in his new book "Confessions of an Economic Hit Man." Perkins claims to have been recruited in the 1960's through the National Security Agency to work at an American firm responsible for creating plans used to justify billions in economic development loans to developing countries (DCs). In the case of Perkins's firm, the plans were to build massive infrastructure projects with the contracts invariably going to large U.S. corporations such as Bechtel and Halliburton. As a result most of the money never left the United States. For the most part the teams he worked on were populated by legitimate engineers with Perkins there to do the economic forecasting. But Perkins's real function, unknown to his teammates, was to cook his forecasts so they would justify loans so large that the actual economic performance in the target DC could not possibly pay them back. The economic servitude stemming from the subsequent indebtedness, Perkins claims, forms the basis of a new American empire where the U.S. can then go in and make demands for such things as brutal economic reforms, rights for U.S. military bases or United Nations votes.
As Perkins explains it, at the end of the Second World War the same economic aid programs that successfully helped rebuild Europe and Japan were then aimed at their prewar colonial possessions in an effort to keep them from taking help from the Soviets during their post war struggles for independence. Due to the Cold War military standoff, overt military action could have provoked global war so new and innovative ways had to be found to ensure the extraction of vital resources from these countries. Perkins tells us that a watershed moment occurs in 1953 when the United States needed to secure the continued flow of inexpensive Iranian oil. This was achieved through regime change in Iran by replacing the legitimately elected government of Mohammad Mossadegh with the young Shah, not by overt military action but covertly, on the cheap, through the newly-created CIA. While this model served to bring down other governments, Perkins states that this method was ultimately refined through the introduction of planned indebtedness.
The book details Perkins's exploits beginning in Indonesia and continuing on a personal odyssey through South and Central America and the Middle East where he participates in the massive effort to modernize Saudi Arabia then flush with petrodollars from the 1970's oil embargos. Perkins says he continually struggled with the perfidy of his deeds. He details encounters with patriots in the countries he seeks to subvert, each one adding impetus to his desire to get out and eventually expose what he's so successfully helped to create. Most interesting of these encounters are the ones with populist leaders in target countries such as Omar Torrejos in Panama and Jamie Roldos of Ecuador. Perkins tells us that these leaders posed special problems. They were men, he says, who were incorruptible and demanded that the game be used to actually facilitate the betterment of their people. According to Perkins, the determination of such men escalates the situation beyond the capabilities of the economic hit men (EHM) and brings forth the second tier of American imperial enforcement known as the "Jackals." Always circling in the background, covert operations experts (read CIA) and their networks of local enforcers can be tapped to brush obstinate populists aside clearing the way for more pliable figureheads. Within three months of each other in 1981 both leaders died in small aircraft crashes. Reforms implemented by Roldos, and deemed unacceptable by international oil companies, are quickly rolled back. In Panama Torrejos is replaced by an ambitious, School of the Americas groomed, officer named Manuel Noriega.
While the idealists are easily dispatched by the Jackals, some of those who work their way to the top in this milieu are streetwise survivors who insulate themselves with a phalanx of loyal security guards and body doubles. When the Jackals are thwarted in this way Perkins says that the only recourse left is to call in the third tier of American empire enforcement and a military invasion takes place. Interestingly the latest examples of this are the two preemptive wars started by both Bush presidencies. In the case of George H.W. it was against Manuel Noriega and in the case of George W., against Saddam Hussein. Perkins told me that for some reason Hussein "would not buy" into the EHMs plans to use the revenue from the oil under Iraq. As we all know his assassination was impossible and now our military has been called into action. In both cases thugs who used to do the bidding of American empire eventually exhibited too much independence and had to be removed from the scene at any cost. To illustrate this point myself, during the run up to the first Gulf War, I devised a political cartoon showing an irate George H.W. Bush yelling at Saddam Hussein over the phone saying "No Saddam! Your instructions were invade Iran and then TO WAIT!"
Having resisted the EHM and evaded the Jackals, including a 1953 vintage Iranian-style rent-a-revolution, Perkins says Hugo Chavez of Venezuela has received a temporary stay due to the invasion of Iraq.
Throughout the book Perkins describes his own personal back and forth between the seduction of this powerful profession and his own desire to come clean with humanity. He describes several attempts at starting this book and says that at one point he is bought off of this quest by a lucrative consulting contract which required very little work but carried the implicit understanding that there would be no tell all books about the duties of the EHM.
For Perkins the straw that broke the camel's back was September 11, 2001. The dangerous, simplistic bromides being peddled as the causes of this terrible event, such as "They hate our freedom" serve in Perkins's view to distract, perhaps by design, from the deep resentment built up in the world as a result of the work he and his fellow EHM have done. While not excusing the terrible violence committed on that day he tells us that in much of the world Osama Bin Laden is looked upon as a kind of Robin Hood who is standing up to the rigged game Perkins helped perpetrate. Out of concern for the world that he passes onto his 22 year old daughter, Perkins now joins the ranks of those who look for the deeper causes of 9/11. This he does despite the withering fire ready to shut down any such introspection by tarring it as "Blame America First."
While it is ground breaking in it's premise, Perkins's story is too much personal odyssey and not enough "Pentagon Papers." To the casual reader of the exploits of the "Evil Empire" this is an interesting narrative that will impart more awareness than knowledge. For those, however, who rely on the intense factual spadework of journalists like Robert Parry or Seymour Hirsh, "Confessions of an Economic Hit Man" will inspire more questions than answers. A critical examination of the invasion of Panama, for instance, reveals the need to get rid of an increasingly cocky Manuel Noriega whose sense of invincibility stems from his participation in the highly secret and illegal "guns for cocaine" trafficking scheme. These activities were used to support the Contras with contacts for this operation leading to the White House itself. The Perkins version mentions drugs but without the important Contra/White House context and relies also on his contention that the first President Bush could use the invasion to shake a perceived "wimp factor" which was exacerbated by Noriega's refusal to grant a fifteen year extension to the U.S. Army's infamous School of the Americas.
The audacious claims in "Confessions of an Economic Hit Man" mark it as an important book to read but it may become known more for the additional confessions it elicits and investigations it spawns than for the details it reveals. Indeed Perkins says he has already been contacted by some of his fellow EHM who agree that world reaction to their game has entered a new and dangerous phase indicating that it may be time for them to come forward as well.