Confessions of an Economic Hitman
A transcript of the Lew Rockwell Show episode 187 with John Perkins.
ANNOUNCER: This is the Lew Rockwell Show.
ROCKWELL: Well, what an honor it is to have as our guest today on the show, John Perkins. I think that if Hollywood weren’t so connected to the Pentagon, maybe there’d be a movie about him, staring George Clooney. But there’s not a movie because of the sorts of books he’s written, especially Confessions of an Economic Hitman that was on The New York Times best-seller list for a year and a half and translated into 30 languages. He’s also author of The Secret History of the American Empire and his newest book, Hoodwinked.
John, I want to talk to you about how you got started, what an economic hitman is, how you were approached after school by the Massachusetts consulting firm and brought into this whole business, what you did and why you got out and why you’ve led your life the way you have ever since then. So that’s — (laughing) — you can take hours to answer that question but tell us about, you know, how you were recruited, first of all, and what you were recruited to do.
PERKINS: Well, yeah, Lew, I actually was initially recruited while I was still in business school in Boston. I was interviewed by the National Security Agency — long series of interviews, lie detector tests, personality tests — and they drew the conclusion that I’d make a good economic hitman, which basically is a con artist. And they also identified three — what we’ll call weaknesses — that would enable them to kind of draw me in, to hook me, if you will. And I think those weaknesses could perhaps be classified as the three big drugs of our culture: sex, power and money. And I was a very young man and I had all of those weaknesses at the time, so that was kind of their “in.” And then after that, they encouraged me to go in the Peace Corps where I learned to speak another language and learned to get along with people in other countries. And while I was still in the Peace Corps, they continued to recruit me, and eventually I ended up working for this private consulting firm, but was trained by a woman named Claudine, who knew — (laughing) — knew all my weaknesses very well and drew upon all of them to entice me into this job, which, you know, I can only call the economic hitman.
ROCKWELL: You know, if we think of the National Security Agency for a moment, it’s portrayed as this heroic bunch of people north of Washington who are watching out for terrorists and other bad guys and protecting, you know, the homeland from all the alleged bad guys and maybe real bad guys in the rest of the world. But as you’re pointing out — (laughing) — it actually serves a very different role or at least partially a different role for the corporate state.
PERKINS: Yeah. You know, my take on both the National Security Agency and the CIA — and incidentally, since then, I’ve known a lot of people who have been pretty high up in either/or or both of those organizations. Their primary job is to further U.S. corporate interests, or let’s call it multi-national corporate interests, in fact. It’s not just U.S. based any more. We’ve got companies like Halliburton which officially are not U.S. any more.
But the CIA and the National Security Agency devote a tremendous amount of effort, money, energy to doing things that help corporate interests abroad, including making sure that those — that the right people are running countries that have resources that our corporations want, bribing them, making sure that they stay in position, and even arranging for them to be taken out of office either through coups or assassination by people that we call the jackals if they stand up against the corporations and say, OK, no more oil drilling in our country, no more mineral extraction by multi-nationals. If something like that happens, they don’t last very long.
ROCKWELL: Well, you know, if — again, this is really a Fascist state, isn’t it, the American state? Too many Americans think of the U.S. government as sort of spreading faith, hope and charity abroad when actually, no matter who is the president, who is at the top of the regime, sort of the corporate state moves on and sees itself as in charge of every other country.
PERKINS: Well, you know, Lew, I think it’s fair to say that — I believe that we’re at a time in history that is unique. And perhaps it’s most similar to the time when the city-states became nations, except today the nations have become somewhat irrelevant. And presidents have become irrelevant. Where we’re at now is a global economy, a global geopolitics that’s really controlled by big corporations.
During most of my life time, we might have envisioned the globe as being this place with roughly 200 countries of which a few have a lot of power — the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, the United States — at various times. But today, I think you might better envision this — you’ve still got a globe with roughly 200 countries but there’s huge clouds drifting around the planet and these are the big corporations. They know no national borders. They don’t follow any specific sets of laws. They form partnerships with the Chinese and the Taiwanese and the Tibetans, with the Israelis and the Arab countries. Whoever has the resources or markets that they covet, that’s who they sidle up to and take control of as much as they can, and so we’re really at a time in history, unlike any other, where nations have become pretty much irrelevant.
ROCKWELL: Do you mean nations or do you mean nation-states? I mean, I must say, I always think of government as being an incredibly stupid institution with people who are — just the nature of a bureaucracy is very stupid. And whenever government is doing something, virtually always for evil, some smart guys in private corporations who are — who are involved in coming up with the idea and helping bring it about. And you were brought in as a young man into this very important New England consulting firm that virtually nobody has ever heard of.
PERKINS: Well, nobody has ever — (laughing) — heard of it outside the business. But believe me, people in the business knew Chas. T. Main very well. We had about 2,000 consultants at the time I was chief economist there and one of the owners, one of the partners in the firm. We were extremely well known by the World Bank and the USAID and the National Security Agency and the CIA and others. So we were well known in those circles but not well known to the general public, by intention.
ROCKWELL: You know, if we think about the USAID, a lot of naïve people think of U.S. foreign aid as being the equivalent of charity when, of course, the USAID is actually a branch of the CIA or closely connected to the CIA, isn’t it, or the whole national security establishment?
PERKINS: Yeah. To think of USAID, the Agency of International Development, as a charitable organization is, yeah, that’s certainly totally erroneous. For the most part, our foreign aid, U.S. foreign aid, like that of most countries, is out there to serve the interest of U.S. corporations and now multi-national corporations. There are small amounts of aid that really go to helping people, particularly when there are times of catastrophe, to send tents and food and water to help people that are, you know, destroyed — their lives have been destroyed by earthquakes or by tsunamis or something, but that’s pretty miniscule and only lasts for a very, very short time. And then after that, the aid that we send in to help these countries is primarily there to help the corporations. That’s the job of USAID and the Export-Import Bank and the World Bank and other similar organizations.
ROCKWELL: I can remember when I was on Capitol Hill, working on Capitol Hill, the first time that I attended the hearings for a foreign aid bill, and one might have thought that Mother Theresa was going to be testifying –
– but, of course, it was General Electric and Westinghouse and Caterpillar and similar companies that are so close — that are part of the corporate state. I mean, they’re connected to the government in a corporatist relationship. And so –
PERKINS: What an eye-opener — what an eye-opener that was for you, Lew, huh?
ROCKWELL: This is our wonderful government and its adjuncts.
So you started working, you say, within the — with a business that is an extremely well-known consulting firm but not certainly known as connected quite the way it was connected or is connected. Does it still exist, by the way?
PERKINS: No. Chas. T. Main was what we call a closely held corporation, roughly the equivalent of a partnership. About 5% of its employees owned the company. I ended up being one of those. And I got out about two to three years before the company basically sold itself to another big firm, another big consulting firm. And it went through some very difficult times, primarily because the president, who was a former general in the U.S. Army, bought three or four construction firms, which the company had never done before, and he bought them at the wrong time. And frankly, I’ve always suspected that there was a reason for all of that happening, that it was time for Chas. T. Main to disappear. And, in fact, it essentially did disappear. I mean, you can still find records of it but it was bought out by Parsons in Southern California, and they kept the name for a year or two and then dissolved the name. And it’s really difficult these days to even get any information on the old Chas. T. Main. Nothing was computerized in those days and it’s hard to find files. I’ve gone back and looked for some of them.
ROCKWELL: Very interesting. So when you were working for Main, you worked with the World Bank, with the International Monetary Fund, with the United Nations and other similar wonderful organizations on behalf of the big corporations connected to the U.S. government. What exactly did they have you do? I mean, what did your job as an economic hitman, as you so eloquently put it — you know, what did you do?
PERKINS: Well, essentially — and we did a lot of things, but I think probably the generic version — (laughing) — is that we would identify a country with resources that the corporations coveted, like oil, and then arrange a huge loan to that country from the World Bank or one of its sister organizations, USAID or Inter-American Development Bank, but the money would never actually go to that country. Instead, it would go to our own corporations to build big infrastructure projects in that country — power plants, industrial parks, highways — things that would benefit a few wealthy families in that country but not the majority of the people. Because the majority of the people couldn’t afford electricity, they didn’t have cars to drive on the highways, and industrial parks don’t hire many people anyway. So the wealthy people would benefit. Mostly, our own corporations would benefit. And then the country would be left holding a huge debt that it couldn’t repay. And at that point, we’ve basically got them. You know, they become our slave. Actually, we can say, you know, you owe us a lot of money, you can’t pay your debts, so sell your oil to us real cheap without any environmental restrictions, vote with us on a critical United Nations bill, let us build a military base on your soil.
And in the few instances where the leaders of these countries didn’t go along with us — and I talk in my books about how Jaime Roldos, the democratically elected president of Ecuador, refused to buy into these deals. He had a lot of integrity. And Omar Torrijos of Panama likewise. I couldn’t bring them around. I couldn’t corrupt them. In these instances, the jackals go in and they either overthrow governments or assassinate them. Both Roldos of Ecuador and Torrijos of Panama were assassinated because they didn’t buy into the deal.
Just last year, President Zelayah, a democratically elected president of Honduras, was overthrown because he wouldn’t buy into the deals that Chiquita, Dole, Kraft and Russell Athletic wanted him to buy into. It’s continuing to happen.
ROCKWELL: Tell us specifically, when you went to a country like Ecuador or Panama or Israel, other places where you were active, I mean, who specifically did you go to talk to? Where you able to get into the president’s office? Did you actually –
ROCKWELL: — have that kind of access?
PERKINS: I did. For the record, I never worked in Israel. But, yeah. You know, I got into Roldos’ office in Quito, Ecuador, and Torrijos’ in Panama. I particularly became close to Torrijos. He was a very charismatic guy. I liked him a lot, and he liked me for some reason, and we became fairly close. At least I thought we were close.
And it was a huge dilemma for me, I’ll tell you, Lew, because my job was to corrupt him, to bring him around. That was my job. And I wasn’t succeeding at it. He was very stalwart. He had a lot of integrity. He used to say to me, “Look, you know, John” — Juanito he called me. This was all in Spanish. He said, “You know, Juanito, I’ve got plenty of money. I’ve got a good house. I’ve got everything I need. I don’t need your bribes. I don’t need your loans. We don’t need that here. What I need is freedom for my people. I don’t want to buy into this.” And, you know, I couldn’t bring him around. And I realized that if I was not able to bring him around, something dire was likely to happen to him, as I’ve seen happen to Arbenz in Guatemala and to Allende in Chili and Lumumba in the Congo and Diem in Vietnam and many others. We’ve seen this happen. So I was really torn because I respected the man for his integrity. Tremendously, I respected him. And yet, I wasn’t able to do my job and I feared that something would happen to him. And, of course, it did. He was assassinated.
ROCKWELL: I remember they blew up his helicopter.
PERKINS: Yeah. It was an airplane.
PERKINS: Yeah. It went down in the — it was destroyed. And three months earlier, the same thing had happened to Roldos in Ecuador. Almost the same plane. He had a very similar type plane to Torrijos’ and they were both brought down.
And at the time — and I know this because I’ve gotten to know Roldos’ daughter very well. She’s now a legislator in Ecuador, Martha Roldos. And she married Torrijos’ cousin. And they talk about how, when Torrijos learned of Roldos’ assassination, he called his family together and he said, “Well, listen, I’m probably going to be next.” But he said, “Don’t worry about it because I got the canal back in the Panamanians’ hands.” He had just signed the treaty with Carter. And he said, “So I really accomplished what I need to accomplish. So when this happens to me, know that I’m going in peace.”
He doesn’t sound like an American politician.
PERKINS: No — (laughing). You’re right about that. Yes.
And I haven’t been privy to hear the — to hear of any people that talk to the American government. I’ve heard the ones at the top of other governments but not the one — not the ones that sit in the White House. I haven’t dealt with them.
ROCKWELL: You know, I know that there are a lot people who thought that things would actually be changing with Obama. Although, I must say, I always think of the president as like a new sticky face on the lapel of the suit of the oligarchy — (laughing) — and not actually an independent actor at all. But we’ve seen the exact same forces, the exact same very wealthy people — George Soros or Warren Buffett or whatever — still seem to be running things no matter who, no matter what party is in power — it certainly won’t change when the Republicans are in power — still here at home. And the empire, we have a vastly bigger operation, don’t we, than when you were in this? I mean, the NSA is far bigger, the CIA is far bigger, the FBI, who knows what other agencies that we don’t even know about that are active both in this country and all over the world in terms of a police state, in terms of the expanding American empire. And yet, at the same time, the American government is threatened by its own economic policies, by the destruction that the Federal Reserve and the other agencies of government have wrought, undermining it, all the debt and so forth. So do you think there’s reason for hope? Or are we just doomed to go down into some kind of imperialist slough of despond?
PERKINS: Well — (laughing) — God, you just said a mouthful — (laughing) — Lew. I mean — (laughing) — all of those things are happening. There’s no question. And I do have hope. And some people call me naïve, but I have hope because I think that all of these things that are happening are pushing us to the edge.
You know, I remember being on the speaking tour before Obama was elected, and I would say things like, you know, we have to be careful not to think a president is going to do too much for us. And we’ve certainly seen that. It ultimately has to be “we, the people.” I think presidents are extremely — the president of the United States is in an extremely vulnerable position. You know, he certainly can remember back — Kennedy, the two Kennedys were assassinated. A lot of other people were assassinated, physically. But in these times, character assassination is also very easy. We saw that happen to Clinton with Monica Lewinsky. We’ve seen it happen to a number of people that all you need to do is start a rumor about some one. It can be true or maybe it isn’t even true. And I think once somebody gets into the White House, they become very, very conscious that they’re in an extremely vulnerable position.
And I think we need to understand that it’s ultimately always been “we, the people.” And right now, I think our concern has to be that over the past couple of decades we’ve been awfully lethargic. We’ve spent far too much time watching television, eating pretzels and drinking beer or whatever, and not getting off our butts and doing something. And we need to understand that in a democracy, it has to be “we, the people” and that the president at this point in time just doesn’t have that much power anyway. But “we, the people” do! These corporations that control the world are dependent on us to buy their goods and services or on our tax dollars to buy their goods and services. We must remember that. But ultimately, the marketplace is a democracy if we choose to make it that.
And I remember, for example, walking beside the Charles River when I was in college in Boston. You couldn’t walk beside the Charles River; it was so terribly polluted. And there were rivers in Ohio that were on fire with pollution, but we forced corporations to clean them up. We got rid of apartheid in South Africa by boycotting corporations that supported it. And we’ve done tremendous things. Corporations, we have to remember, are very, very vulnerable if we choose to make them such. And therefore, I’m hopeful that we can turn this thing around. But “we, the people” are going to have to make it happen.
ROCKWELL: Well, it’s absolutely true that government and the agencies, organizations and corporations that are connected to government are dependent on the consent of the governed because there are so few of them as compared to the — what John C. Calhoun called “fewer tax-eaters than there are taxpayers.” So, yes, I mean, no question that we actually have it in our hands to withdraw consent from the government itself, from the corporations that are involved in the empire. And, yes, we actually do have a — we actually have it in our hands to make serious changes, especially at a revolutionary time like this when, again, the government is undermining itself through all the vast debt. Banks are all, despite the trillions of dollars funneled into them by Bush and Obama and the Federal Reserve and so forth, they’re all extremely shaky. So this is a very interesting time.
And I want to urge everybody to take a look at John Perkins’ books. Take a look at johnperkins.org. Take a look especially at Confessions of an Economic Hitman.
John, just let me ask you one question before we go. How are you still alive?
PERKINS: Well, Lew, I just wanted to say I think Hoodwinked, actually my most recent book, really addresses these issues even more than Confessions does. But, yeah, I’d love to have people subscribe to my newsletter at johnperkins.org.
How am I still alive? That’s a question that comes up periodically — (laughing). And, you know, after I quit being an economic hitman, in the early ’80s, I started writing the book that became Confessions ultimately. And I contacted other economic hitmen and jackals to get their stories. And I received an anonymous phone call threatening my life and my daughter’s life. She was born in ’82. I took them seriously. I’ve seen what’s happened. I also got a major bribe offer. The chairman of the board of Stone & Webster, a big engineering firm that does still exist incidentally –
PERKINS: — took me out to dinner and he said, “You know, you’ve got a great resume.” Yeah, I was chief economists at one of his top rivals. “We want to use your resume and proposals and you don’t have to do any work for us; just let us use your resume and we’ll pay you a half a million bucks, a consultants retainer fee; just don’t write the book that we know you’re working on.”
PERKINS: I didn’t. You know, I succumbed. I took the bribe. And I have to say, in my own defense, that I put a lot of that money towards organizations that became Dream. You can go to dreamchange.org or pachamama.org, non-profits that are helping people in countries that I’d screwed. But I didn’t write the book.
And then, on 9/11, I was in the Amazon with one of these organizations. But afterwards, I flew up to Ground Zero. And as I stood there looking at that smoldering pit, I knew I had to write the book. This time, I decided I wouldn’t tell a soul. And I wrote the whole book. I didn’t do what I was supposed to do. At that point, I’d had five other books published on indigenous people, ones that were not threatening to Stone & Webster or to anybody else. And I knew the routine: you write a proposal and you get an advance and then you write the book. I didn’t do that. I wrote the whole book; put it in the hands of a very confident agent. He got it out to the major publishing houses. And at that point, until today, it’s my best insurance policy because, you know, if somebody pulls a gun on me today and shoots me — I say this facetiously — but Penguin and Random House would probably be very happy, my two most recent publishers, and the books sales will go up. They’ll skyrocket overnight from the assassination. I guarantee it. The jackals know this.
So, you know, if you’re going to be whistleblower, I strongly recommend it, but don’t threaten to blow the whistle ahead of time. Get all of your — get everything in order. Get everything written down some place where everybody knows that it’s going to be available if something happens to you, and then blow the whistle.
ROCKWELL: Well, John Perkins, thank goodness you blew the whistle. I hope that others follow your example. Others have followed your example, but we need many more of them, especially in these days.
Again, everybody take a look at johnperkins.org. Read his books.
And, John, thanks so much for coming on the show.
PERKINS: Thank you, Lew. And, you know, it’s shows like this that keep the idea of a free press alive, so I take my hat off to you. I really honor what you’re doing. And thank you so much for doing the good work you’re doing in keeping spreading the word.
ROCKWELL: Thank you, John. Bye-bye.
ANNOUNCER: You’ve been listening to the Lew Rockwell Show, produced by LewRockwell.com, the best-read Libertarian website in the world. Thanks for listening.
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Podcast date, February 15, 2011