A hit man comes clean on economy

Published February 7, 2005

Economic hit men (EHMs) are highly paid professionals who cheat countries around the globe out of trillions of dollars. . . . I should know; I was an EHM.

- John Perkins, author of Confessions of an Economic Hit Man

Floridian John Perkins led a comfortable life as a former international economist and energy entrepreneur. He planned to spend his retirement years writing New Age books and promoting organizations devoted to the environment and helping Amazon tribes.

Then came the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. To Perkins, now 60, who spent years smack dab in the middle of the U.S. international development game across the globe - 9/11 was a wake-up call.

A call to confess.

Hence his recently published book, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. It tells how the United States in the past 40-plus years has relied on economic manipulation and political coercion to extend its power and control over other nations. Perkins' book is on a dozen bestseller lists and ranked No. 10 on Sunday's list of nonfiction bestsellers in the New York Times. It is already in its seventh printing.

Perkins apparently has hit a nerve with readers anxious to understand better why so many parts of the developing world have such deep-seeded suspicions of the United States. The book sheds new light on decades of economic maneuvers in the Middle East that contributed to today's U.S. involvement in Iraq. The book even offers some context for the current tensions between the energy-hungry United States and one of its major oil providers, Venezuela, as detailed by St. Petersburg Times Latin America correspondent David Adams on this business page.

"What economic hit men do is not illegal, but it should be illegal," Perkins said in a recent interview. If a banker persuaded someone to take out a loan that was too big to repay, but then demanded some favor to satisfy the loan, it would be criminal, he argues.

"This is done on such an international and big scale, that is it not criminal," he said.

To be sure, Perkins' "confession" does not break entirely new ground. Books on antiglobalism and U.S. imperialism are abundant. I am reminded of Chalmers Johnson's book published in 2000, Blowback. That is a CIA term describing the unintended consequences of events that were kept secret from the American public. When the 9/11 attacks happened and Americans asked, "Why do they hate us?," most of the world knew full well, Johnson wrote at the time. But most Americans had no idea.

Perkins' book offers a similar theme. But his story is bolstered by the author's firsthand experiences in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Indonesia, Panama and Columbia. In our interview, Perkins recalled how discouraged he was at the rising anti-Americanism he encountered last year on a trip to Nepal and Tibet.

"Our people seem unaware," he said of Americans. "They believe that foreign aid is used altruistically. But it is often not used that way, and our own citizens do not understand that."

As a younger man in 1971, Perkins' business card identified him as an economist for Charles T. Main. The elite Boston consulting firm advised the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and other multinational development agencies whether they should lend billions to developing countries to build such mega-projects as hydroelectric dams, roads and power plants.

In reality, said Perkins, he had been recruited as an "economic hit man." He had interviewed years before with the National Security Agency, but took a detour by working for the Peace Corps. While in Ecuador, he was approached by a Charles T. Main executive named Einar Greve, a U.S. Army Reserve colonel who told Perkins he also acted as an NSA liaison.

When Perkins' stint with the Peace Corp was over, Greve hired Perkins at Main. The malleable Perkins then met company consultant Claudine Martin. As described in the book, she introduced him to his secret role and to the phrase "economic hit man" or EHM.

Sound a bit too cloak and dagger? Greve, now retired as president of Tucson, Ariz., Electric Power Co., told the Tucson Citizen last month said Perkins' story is "basically true."

Perkins' job was to travel the globe and purposely inflate the economic growth estimates in developing countries. Those bloated estimates were then used to justify funneling billions of international aid dollars and bank loans into poor countries.

The money would largely end up in the hands of giant U.S. engineering and construction firms like Bechtel and Halliburton, contracted to build the dams and power plants. Any funds left over often disappeared into the hands of dictators and a few politically powerful families.

It was a sweet, self-serving and corrupt set-up, Perkins acknowledged, one the young economist happily went along with to enjoy the big pay and perks that come with living in developing countries.

The real beauty was that Perkins did not work for an NSA or CIA. He was employed by a private company. It was part of a system that initially, after World War II, was intended to exert U.S. influence and discourage the spread of communism in Third World countries.

Now that same system helps extend the U.S. global empire and, increasingly, the reach and influence of large U.S. corporations, Perkins argues.

Billions of federal taxpayer dollars simply recycled into the hands of big U.S. corporations. The debt incurred by the developing countries - based on Perkins' own rigged analyses of the countries' economies - would eventually overwhelm them. When that happened, the United States gained more influence over the indebted country.

"It was like what the hit men in the Mafia do," Perkins explained. "We arranged for someone to get a gift from the "Don' that they can never really repay. Then the "Don' wants something, possibly illegal, and asks for repayment."

And what favors did the United States request? "Control over United Nations votes, the installation of military bases or access to precious resources such as oil," Perkins said.

Thanks to the role of economic hit men in the 1970s, Perkins said, Saudi Arabia cut a deal with the United States to provide ample oil, even in hard times, in exchange for U.S. military protection.

The first Iraqi war in the early 1990s and the current involvement in Iraq, Perkins suggests, are the result of past failures of economic hit men to make Iraq under Saddam Hussein more beholden to this country.

Americans don't like to hear it - and it is unfortunate, Perkins said - but decades of U.S. meddling in the Middle East contributed to the rise and "Robin Hood" status of Osama Bin Ladin in certain parts of the world.

He hopes his speaking up will make things better for the next generation, including daughter Jessica, a 22-year-old FSU graduate now working in Tampa.

Last month, Perkins left his Florida home near Palm Beach Gardens for Brazil. There he told his well-received tale as an economic hit man to thousands of people attending the six-day World Social Forum. The event is held each year to protest the simultaneous World Economic Forum in Switzerland attended by government leaders, multinational executives and, lately, Hollywood celebrities.

Now Perkins is traveling this country to tell his story, with scheduled speaking engagements across the Midwest, and at such northeastern schools as Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania and Brown.

Some confessions take a lot longer than others.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at 727 893-8405 or trigaux@sptimes.com