Book Review

Confessions of an Economic Hit Man

by John Perkins

We all know what an hit man is, and that's why John Perkins hit (sic) on a very clever title for his book. For the first thing a potential reader will do is ask himself: What's an economic hit man? According to Perkins, economic hit men are highly paid professionals who cheat countries around the globe out of trillions of dollars. Their tools include fraudulent financial reports, rigged elections, payoffs, sex and murder. In this book he relates how it's done – and he should know: he was one of them.

Source unknown (not from book), but it's the general idea.

Sounds like a Graham Greene novel and, frankly, I wonder how much is truth and how much fiction. But even if the author has spiced things up a bit, if what he says is essentially true, and much of it certainly rings true, it should be of great interest. Essentially, he claims that there is a non-conspiracy – i.e., it's done openly – to convince third world governments to take so called development loans for the purpose of building dams, electricity and communications systems and, especially, oil projects, with the conditions that the projects are built by U.S. Firms (Bechtel, Halliburton, et al). The projects, when realized, usually benefit the rich only and the poor get poorer. Furthermore, the countries involved are saddled with debts they are unable to pay back and therefore become vassals of the U.S. and/or multinationals or the World Bank and IMF. Perkins call this “imperialism”.

Perkins worked for an engineering consultancy called Chas. T. Main, Inc. where he was Chief Economist. This is undisputed. He describes how he went to countries like Indonesia, Panama, Ecuador, Colombia and others in order to prepare economic projections, then persuade the governments to take loans to pay for them. He and his colleagues routinely prophesied inflated growth rates, for example if an electrification system could result in 9% economic growth over ten years, they called it 21%. If the government in question resisted, the “jackals” were called in. He doesn't say exactly what the jackals did, but he is certain that both presidents Jaime Roldós of Ecuador and Omar Torrijos of Panama, both of whom died in small airplane crashes, were assassinated. They had rejected the hit men's overtures, the latter about the Panama Canal, the former about oil resources.

Is it possible? I don't know, but let's look at the cast of players. Robert McNamara, after his catastrophic failure as U.S. Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War, was named President of the World Bank.

Perkins: “Most of my friends focused on the fact that he symbolized what was popularly known as the military-industrial complex. He had held the top position in a major corporation, in a government cabinet, and now at the most powerful bank in the world. Such an apparent breach in the separation of powers horrified many of them; I may have been the only one among us who was not in the least surprised.

I see now that Robert McNamara's greatest and most sinister contribution to history was to jockey the World Bank into be­coming an agent of global empire on a scale never before wit­nessed. He also set a precedent. His ability to bridge the gaps between the primary components of the “corporatocracy” would be fine-tuned by his successors. For instance, George Shultz was sec­retary of the treasury and chairman of the Council on Economic Policy under Nixon, served as Bechtel president, and then became secretary of state under Reagan. Caspar Weinberger was a Bech­tel vice president and general counsel, and later the secretary of defense under Reagan. Richard Helms was Johnson's CIA direc­tor and then became ambassador to Iran under Nixon. Richard Cheney served as secretary of defense under George H. W. Bush, as Halliburton president, and as U.S. vice president to George W. Bush. Even a president of the United States, George H. W. Bush, began as founder of Zapata Petroleum Corp, served as U.S. am­bassador to the U.N. under presidents Nixon and Ford, and was Ford's CIA director.

Looking back, I am struck by the innocence of those days. In many respects, we were still caught up in the old approaches to em­pire building. Kermit Roosevelt had shown us a better way when he overthrew an Iranian democrat and replaced him with a despotic king. We EHMs were accomplishing many of our objectives in places like Indonesia and Ecuador, and yet Vietnam was a stunning example of how easily we could slip back into old patterns.”

Perkins was an innocent at first (according to him) believing that he was helping the undeveloped world to get off its knees and become prosperous. But he was seduced by...and here the story becomes, money and power, the former being provided by Claudine, his hit girl trainer. She was a beautiful older woman, a confidential Main trainer. The training sessions took place in her apartment, where she offered technical instruction on hit man etiquette, wine, roses and sex. Believable? Who knows? Why not? Perkins also claims that he was originally recruited by the NSA (National Security Agency). It's true that the NSA is a super secret U.S. Intelligence arm – but its mission is cryptology and penetrating foreign language broadcasts and nowadays surely websites. At least that was the case way back when I attended the Army Language School, from where the NSA recruited the best students (not me). So what are they doing recruiting economic hit men? Why not the CIA? But what do I know?

I already mentioned Graham Greene. Well, he also appears in this book. He was a friend and admirer of Omar Torrijos, as his book Getting to Know the General clearly affirms. John Perkins claims to have met him in a Panama hotel restaurant years before that book appeared. Greene had read a recent Perkins article in the Boston Globe, complimented him on it, and suggested he wrote a book about his experiences.

If you think you note some skepticism in this review, dear readers, you are correct. There is something about the author suddenly changing from bad guy to good guy that doesn't quite resonate – for me. Nevertheless, the book is interesting and well worth reading and certainly contains much more than a few grains of truth.

Frank Thomas Smith