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John Perkins: New Confessions and Revelations from the World of Economic Hit Men

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In Confessions, I talked about a world rooted in the cold war, in the dynamics and proxy conflicts of the U.S.–Soviet conflict. My sojourn in that war ended in 1981, a quarter of a century ago. Since then, and especially since the collapse of the USSR, the dynamics of empire have changed. The world is now more multipolar and mercantile, with China and Europe emerging to compete with the U.S. Empire is heavily driven by multinational corporations, whose interests transcend those of any particular nation-state. 3 There are new multinational institutions and trade agreements, such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) and North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and newly articulated ideologies and programs, such as neoliberalism and the structural adjustments and conditionalities imposed by the IMF. But one thing remains unchanged: the peoples of the Third World continue to suffer; their future, if anything, looks even bleaker than it did in the early 1980s.

A quarter-century ago, I saw myself as a hit man for the interests of U.S. capitalism in the struggle for control of the developing world during the cold war. Today, the EHM game is more complex, its corruption more pervasive, and its operations more fundamental to the world economy and politics. There are many more types of economic hit men, and the roles they play are far more diverse. The veneer of respectability remains a key factor; subterfuges range from money laundering and tax evasion carried out in well-appointed office suites to activities that amount to economic war crimes and result in the deaths of millions of people. The chapters that follow reveal this dark side of globalization, showing a system that depends on deception, extortion, and often violence: an officer of an offshore bank hiding hundreds of millions in stolen money, IMF advisors slashing Ghana’s education and health programs, a Chinese bureaucrat seeking oil concessions in Africa, a mercenary defending a European oil company in Nigeria, a consultant rewriting Iraqi oil law, and executives financing warlords to secure supplies of coltan ore in Congo.

The main obstacle to compiling such stories should be obvious. Most EHMs do not think it is in their best interests to talk about their jobs. Many are still actively employed in the business. Those who have stepped away often receive pensions, consultant fees, and other perks from their former employers. They understand that whistle-blowers usually sacrifice such benefits—and sometimes much more. Most of us who have done that type of work pride ourselves on loyalty to old comrades. Once one of us decides to take the big leap—“into the cold,” to use CIA vernacular—we know we have to face the harsh reality of powerful forces arrayed to protect the institutional power of multinational corporations, global banks, government defense and security agencies, international agencies—and the small elite that runs them.

In recent years, the people charged with deceiving ordinary citizens have grown more cunning. The Pentagon Papers and the White House Watergate tapes taught them the dangers of writing and recording incriminating details. The Enron, Andersen, and WorldCom scandals, and recent allegations about CIA renditions, weapons of mass destruction deceits, and National Security Agency eavesdropping serve to reinforce policies that favor shredding. Government officials who expose a CIA agent to retaliate against her whistle-blowing spouse go unpunished. All these events lead to the ultimate deterrent to speaking the truth: those who expose the corporatocracy can expect to be assassinated—financially and by reputation, if not with a bullet.

Less obvious deterrents also keep people from telling the truth. Opening one’s soul for public scrutiny, confessing, is not fun. I had written many books before Confessions (five of them published). Yet none prepared me for the angst I would encounter while exposing my transgressions as an EHM. Although most of us humans do not want to think of ourselves as corrupt, weak, or immoral, it is difficult—if not impossible—to ignore those aspects of ourselves when describing our lives as economic hit men. Personally, it was one of the most difficult tasks I have ever undertaken. In approaching prospective contributors to a book such as this I might tell them that confessing is, in the end, worth the anguish. However, for someone setting out on this path, that end seems very distant.

I discussed these obstacles and the potential benefits of overcoming them with Steve Piersanti, the intrepid founder and CEO of Berrett-Koehler, who made the decision to publish Confessions. It did not take us long to decide that the benefits were well worth the struggle. If my Confessions could send such a strong message to the public, it made sense that multiple confessions—or stories about people who need to confess—might reach even more people and motivate them to take actions that will turn this empire back into the democratic republic it was intended to be. Our goal was nothing less than convincing the American public that we can and must create a future that will make our children and grandchildren—and their brothers and sisters on every continent—proud of us.

Of course we had to start by showing journalists the trowels and the trenches. We decided that we should also include well-researched analyses by observers who came from a more objective perspective, rather than a personal one. A balance between firsthand and third-party accounts seemed like the prudent approach.

Steve took it upon himself to find someone who could be an editor and also serve as a sleuth: he’d have to ferret out prospective writers and convince them that loyalty to country, family, and future generations on every continent demanded that they participate in this book. After an extensive selection process, he, his staff, and I settled on Steve Hiatt. Steve is a professional editor—but he also has a long history as an activist, first against the Vietnam War and then as a teachers’ union organizer. In addition, he worked for a number of years at Stanford Research Institute, a think tank and consultancy organization serving multinationals and government agencies around the world and closely linked to Bechtel, Bank of America, and other players in the EHM world. There he worked on research reports that he describes as essentially “the corporatocracy talking to itself.”

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Once the process of assembling this anthology began, I started speaking about it. When people asked those questions—”Can you prove the existence of other EHMs?” “Has anyone else written about these things?” “Have others made similar disclosures?”—I told them about the upcoming book. The wisdom of making that decision to publish an anthology was supported on February 19, 2006, when the New York Times ran a major article that featured Confessions on the front page of its Sunday Business Section. The editors, I am sure, were comforted by the results of a background check confirming my account of my life and the episodes described in Confessions; however, the fact that other EHMs and researchers had committed to writing this book was, I suspect, the most important factor in their decision to publish that article.

The intrepid contributors to this book uncover events that have taken place across a wide range of countries, all EHM game plans under a variety of guises. Each sheds more light on the building of an empire that is contrary to American principles of democracy and equality. The chapters are presented in an order that follows the flow of money and power in the Global Empire. Chart 1 shows that progression: the selling of loans to Third World countries, the flow of dirty money back to First World control via secret offshore accounts, the failure of debt-led development models to reduce poverty, the accumulation of mountains of unpayable debt, the gutting of local economies by the IMF, and military intervention and domination to secure access to resources. Steve Hiatt, in “Global Empire,” gives an overview of the web of control that First World companies and institutions use to rule the global economy. Each subsequent chapter exposes another facet. In brief summary:

• Sam Gwynne joined Cleveland Trust and quickly moved into the heady atmosphere of international banking, where he learned that ability to pay had little to do with placing loans. In “Selling Money—and Dependency: Setting the Debt Trap” he describes a culture of business corruption in which local elites and international banks build mutually supportive relationships based on debts that will have to be repaid by ordinary citizens.

• John Christensen worked for a trust company on the offshore banking haven of Jersey, one of Britain’s Channel Islands. There he found himself at the center of the EHM world, part of a global offshore banking industry that facilitates tax evasion, money laundering, and capital flight. In “Dirty Money” he reveals the workings of a system that enables the theft of billions from Third World (and First World) citizens; the lures of an opulent lifestyle; and why he decided to get out.

• The Bank of Credit and Commerce International was for two decades was a key player in offshore/underground banking. It provided off-the-books/illegal transactions for a startling range of customers—from the CIA to the Medellín cartel to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. In “BCCI’s Double Game,” Lucy Komisar recounts the bank’s rapid rise and fall—and its $13 billion bankruptcy.

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• Congo remains one of the world’s poorest countries and is caught in a civil war that has cost at least 4 million lives over the last ten years, with western multinationals financing militias and warlords to ensure access to gold, diamonds, and coltan. In “The Human Cost of Cheap Cell Phones,” Kathleen Kern provides an eyewitness account of the high price the Congolese have paid to bring cheap electronics to First World consumers.

• Some 30 percent of America’s supply of oil is expected to come from Africa in the next ten years, but U.S. and UK oil companies will be competing with China for access to Niger Delta reserves. Local communities have been campaigning to gain a share of this new wealth and to prevent environmental destruction of their region. In “Mercenaries on the Front Lines in the New Scramble for Africa,” Andrew Rowell and James Marriott tell how a British expat security officer found himself in the middle of this struggle for oil and power.

• According to most estimates Iraq has the world’s second largest oil reserves—and access to Iraq’s oil has been one of the essential elements of U.S. foreign policy. The occupation regime is planning to sign oil production sharing agreements with U.S. and UK companies that will cost the Iraqi people $200 billion that they need to rebuild their country. In “Hijacking Iraq’s Oil Reserves,” Greg Muttitt reveals the EHM behind this high-level hit.

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John Perkins is author of Confessions of An Economic Hit Man

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