Economic Hit Man

Claudine Martin is the name on the business card she slips to him
across the table, though he will come to doubt that it is real. The
next line reads Special Con-sultant to Chas. T. Main Incorporated, the
stodgy engineering firm that has just given 26-year-old John Perkins,
fresh from a stint in the Peace Corps and woefully lacking in financial
training, a plum job as its newest junior economist. And instructed
him, in early 1971, to come here to the Boston Public Library reference
room, to prepare for one of his first projects.

I've been asked to help in your training.

Naturally she's gorgeous. And brilliant, and Perkins had married too
young, and all of this training is to take place in the private
confines of Claudine's idyllic Beacon Street apartment, blocks out of
the way of the company's Prudential Center headquarters. Most of his
bosses are strait-laced guys who'd gone military academy, then MIT,
then Main; Perkins is an unshaven liberal-arts type who opposes the
Vietnam War. Even if he were allowed to talk about his liaisons with
her, he can't confide in them. As it is, he isn't supposed to tell
anyone, not even your wife, that he has just received a second,
unofficial title. That from now on, he will be an Economic Hit Man.

We're a small, exclusive club, Claudine tells her disciple. We're
paid — well paid — to cheat countries around the globe out of billions
of dollars. The duties of the economic hit men, who always refer to
themselves as EHM, are threefold: First they generate wildly optimistic
economic forecasts that international banks will use to justify big
loans to developing countries. The countries then spend the money on
power plants and roads, showering American engineering firms like Main
and Bechtel and Brown & Root with contracts. But the crucial step,
the real key, is to ensure that the projects are so ambitious, the
loans so huge, that the leaders in charge of paying them back will be
forced to appeal for mercy — and that's when they'll have to do the
United States a favor, a military base, a UN vote, whatever. They
become ensnared in a web of debt that ensures their loyalty. We can
draw on them whenever we desire to satisfy our political, economic, or
military needs.

After Claudine takes full advantage of Perkins's post-adolescent
weaknesses, she tells him the history of economic-hit-manhood, how it's
a job CIA agents used to be charged with, how they had played a hand in
toppling uncooperative heads of state. How the so-called experts,
bookish economists who didn't understand the real object of the game,
would try to undermine his rosy forecasts. And over a bottle of
beaujolais, how, in no uncertain terms:

Talking about us would make life dangerous for you.

“Close your eyes for a minute.” On a Thursday evening in May, John
Perkins is in New Hampshire, speaking to a packed house in the chapel
at Tilton, his old boarding school. As it turned out, some 33 years
after the fact, Perkins did talk about Claudine, told the world about
her in a 250-page geopolitical memoir called Confessions of an Economic
Hit Man. What finally convinced me to ignore the threats and bribes?
Fatherhood and patriotism, he explains in his preface, a deep
commitment to the American republic, and his fear, after September 11,
that the EHMs who followed him were turning that republic into a global
empire. The book hit stores in November. And nothing more dangerous
than unexpected success has befallen him.

More than 20 editors turned down Perkins's manuscript before his
agent got a yes from Berrett-Koehler, a little-known independent San
Francisco publisher. The deal did not pay Perkins an advance. Without
the benefit of marketing blitz or name recognition, Confessions has
since sold more than 125,000 copies in hardcover, about twice as many
as the much more mainstream Globalization and Its Discontents, by Nobel
Prize winner and former World Bank chief Joseph Stiglitz. In Venezuela,
President Hugo Chavez referenced the book during a state-of-the-nation
address and talked about his own face-offs with economic hit men.
Beacon Pictures optioned the book for a possible film after Brad Pitt's
Plan B Productions passed. For the better part of four months this
spring, Confessions was on the New York Times bestseller list, despite
being ignored by the rest of the paper, not to mention pretty much
every section of every major newspaper and magazine in the country.
Which would have found some pretty incredible claims had they bothered
to look.

Confessions is a triumph, Perkins's website boasts, of word-of-mouth
marketing, of the new e-mail–enabled buzz-producing power of Howard
Dean clubs and MoveOn volunteers, of peacenik blogs. Maybe you, too,
are ready to listen to new arguments, stuff you would have rolled your
eyes at a few years ago, back before WorldCom and Abu Ghraib and the
Downing Street memo. Maybe you caught that we were shipping prisoners
out of Gitmo to have them interrogated in countries like Uzbekistan —
whose crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators has been branded a
massacre by human rights organizations — a tactic even the Weekly
Standard thinks is a bad idea. Maybe you're one of the 65 percent of
Americans who do not feel the country is headed in the “right
direction.” Maybe the job has been outsourced, the executive indicted,
the election lost.

And maybe you're at your neighborhood Barnes & Noble when your
eye catches a book, a wonky-looking thing with an intriguing title
rendered in a subdued sans-serif font and a cover photo showing a man
in a suit with a steel briefcase walking through a Third World slum, a
picture that promises to force you to confront the uncomfortable
inequalities of the world. Maybe you go in expecting some statistics
and sober analysis and don't know quite what to think when you get to
the first chapter and Perkins is visualizing himself as a dashing
secret agent, heading off to exotic lands, lounging beside hotel
swimming pools. But by the time you're in the library and he's looking
into the soft green eyes of his scheming seductress, you're — well, to
quote Claudine, once you're in, you never get out.

After his last night with Claudine, Perkins never sees her again. He
repairs to his apartment in the Back Bay and packs his bags for
Indonesia, where his job will be to convince Howard Parker, a
curmudgeonly veteran Main forecaster, that the country's surging
economy will create massive energy demand. Parker refuses to budge from
his conservative predictions, and upon their return to the Prudential
Center, the old man gets fired. He's lost touch with reality, says
Perkins's mentor, Bruno Zambotti, an irascible Cary Grant look-alike
who will eventually become Main's president. You've just been promoted.

Then it's off to Panama, a grim vestige of colonialism where the
graffiti bears messages like Death for Freedom Is the Way to Christ,
the locals are trying to regain control of their canal, and Perkins
finds himself invited for a completely unexpected private audience with
the country's populist dictator, Omar Torrijos. Somehow, conversation
turns to events 8,000 miles away, in Iran, where the U.S.-friendly shah
is coming under threats from the mullahs. Despite his own anti-American
reputation, Torrijos is sympathetic to the shah; it's a lose-lose
situation, he says, trying to lead a poor country rich in natural
resources crucial to the appetites of the global economy without
succumbing to either communism or what Perkins will refer to, again and
again, as the corporatocracy. Bodyguards? I have a few myself, Torrijos
tells Perkins. You think they'll save my life if your country decides
to get rid of me?

Six chapters later, contracts for work in Iran land our hero in a
dimly lit restaurant with a radical named Yamin, who happens to have
heard that Perkins is a man in the middle, a man between two worlds, an
EHM open to the truth. Yamin drives Perkins out of Tehran and through
the desert to a shack in a small oasis. Inside, Yamin introduces him to
a victim of the shah's brutal regime: Doc, a once trusted government
adviser who has been purged, reduced to a shadowy form in a wheelchair
sitting in the dark.

I could see the outline of the man's face in profile, his shaggy
beard, and — then it grabbed me — the flatness. He had no nose! I
stifled a gasp.

And Confessions goes on and on like this, with Perkins sharing his
astonishing recollections like an increasingly cynical Forrest Gump. In
another chapter, Perkins writes of spending eight months during the
thick of the 1970s oil crisis sequestered on and off in a private
conference room in Main's offices, thinking of ways to get the Saudis
to funnel the money Americans were spending on their oil back into the
U.S. economy. He sees himself as a whiz kid and a Merlin who could
cause industries to magically sprout like flowers. He envisions power
plants. Office parks. Roads. Waste management facilities to process all
the stuff the Saudis would churn out if someone just drew the
blueprints for them. With the help of Perkins and Main, the U.S.
Treasury Department devises a plan: It will oversee the construction of
several modern cities that will rise, en masse, from Saudi Arabia's
barren deserts. There's just one slight obstacle. We would have to
convince key players in the Saudi government.

Perkins's assignment is a fellow he calls Prince W., who displays a
weakness of his own: blondes. “Sally” was a beautiful blue-eyed woman
whose husband made little attempt to hide his infidelities. She agreed
to give Prince W. a try. Pimping was then, and is now, illegal, Perkins
reminds his readers. But fortunately he'd always been a good tipper.
The posh Boston restaurants he frequents have no qualms about giving
him blank receipts, which are enough to fool his clueless colleagues.
Luckily, the accounting department allowed me great liberties with my
expense account.

It is my greatest wish that Perkins is telling the whole truth all
the way through, one of Perkins's 150 reviewers writes. Even
the smallest of fibs could tarnish a work of great importance, given
our media's
inability to see bigger pictures. The truth is, it's
hard to know for certain what parts of Confessions are true: Perkins,
as EHMs are no doubt wont to do, has left few easily traceable tracks.
Parsons Corporation, the privately held firm that acquired Main in
1985, is headquartered in Pasadena, California. “I really don't know
where their records would be,” says a spokeswoman, referring to the
files that might contain the restaurant receipts used to cover up the
arrangement with “Sally.” Torrijos is dead. So are Parker the
curmudgeon and Charlie Illingworth, the project manager who oversaw
Perkins's first assignment, and most of the men who ran Main when
Perkins was there. Perkins says he doesn't know “Doc”'s real identity
or what became of “Yamin.” His first wife, Ann — whose father's friend,
“Uncle Frank,” set him up with the National Security Agency interview
he claims profiled him for the job of economic hit man — does not want
to be contacted, Perkins tells me in an e-mail. Please respect this.

The one person who would indisputably know if Claudine or the
economic hit men or the bribes ever existed is Bruno Zambotti. A man by
that name lives in Potomac, Maryland, and seems to relish slamming down
his phone. He did not respond to a note I left on his doorstep or to
the letter I sent in a final fruitless attempt to get him to talk. But
several of the other surviving Main alumni, who gather each year for a
reunion (“We are still stepping out,” announces the 2004 program), have
read Confessions, and a few of them have spotted holes in Perkins's
stories: Noreen Illingworth disputes that her husband ever harbored an
obsession with General Patton or wore anything like the khaki shirt
with military-style epaulettes Perkins depicts. Frank Fullerton,
Perkins's one-time supervisor, says Perkins left Main not out of a
crisis of conscience but because he “thought he was worth more than he
was.” Most, however, simply can't see why anyone would want to sully
the firm's good name. These are guys who spent their formative years in
the Great Depression, their adolescences fighting or preparing to fight
World War II, their twenties studying to master the math that would
underlie the elegant, efficient foundations of future economies. They
can't conceive how Perkins could see the world — the Big Picture, if
you will — so differently. (“There was never a time,” says Bob Ender,
an old colleague of Perkins's, “when I felt like a team that was more
than the sum of its parts the way I did at Main.”)

When pressed for documentation to verify his claims, Perkins and his
publisher produce a flimsy package of materials. The most convincing is
an article from the Tucson Citizen written by a reporter who recognized
the name Einar Greve — the curious Norwegian who originally recruited
Perkins to Main — as that of the infamous Tucson Electric Power CEO who
had left the company amid insider-trading allegations in 1989. Tracked
down at his new home in Santa Barbara, California, Greve tells the
reporter, “Allowing for some author discretion, basically the story is

That call to Greve is followed by others — from Scandinavian
journalists, from other American reporters, from me. (And, oh yes, a
production company, a Plan B, owned by Brad Pitt. “I got the sense Pitt
very much wanted this story to be true.” To impress Angelina? I
wonder.) By now Greve has gone back and re-read the book. He has some
bones to pick. For instance, the part where Perkins writes that they
met on an airstrip and Greve informed me that he sometimes acted as an
NSA liaison and gave me a look that made me suspect that part of his
assignment was to evaluate my capabilities. It was actually a hotel
bar, Greve says, and “I don't know anyone in the NSA,” and, anyway,
well, “if I do they wouldn't tell me about it.” Perkins contends that
he later penned 15 letters to Greve from Ecuador. “I don't know what
he's talking about,” says Greve. That it was Greve who sent him to the
library where he was seduced by Claudine. “Oh, that part was fiction.”

So that's it: Perkins is lying?

Long pause.

“I think that John,” Greve says, “really has convinced himself that a lot of this stuff is true.”

Maybe you are tired. Maybe the trillions of terabytes of instantly
Googlable facts you can summon to support or refute whatever point
you're supporting or refuting just leaves you dizzy, numb, small. Maybe
everyone, even the bloggers spouting opinions that rack up countless
hits, feels that way, because we're just arguing about technicalities.
The known- and unknown-knowns, as a certain defense secretary might

A good part of Perkins's book is known-knowns that have simply been
forgotten. But that winds up being one of Confessions' weird strengths:
For page upon page, he stretches your credulity to the breaking point,
only to — snap! — pull you back with an aside on the verified
surreality of Cold War foreign policy. Though the Treasury Department
wouldn't refer to it by Perkins's label, the Saudi Arabian
Money–laundering Affair, the department did indeed form a commission,
known as JECOR, through which the Saudis basically outsourced the
modernization of their entire country. (It was also the vehicle through
which a lot of rich Saudis got richer, as a single prince did to the
tune of $200 million when Bechtel bribed him in order to snag the
Riyadh Airport contract in the late 1970s.) In one passage, Perkins
quotes Oscar Torrijos talking about the coup that ousted Guatemalan
leader Jacobo Arbenz, whose land reform campaign had threatened
property held by the American-owned United Fruit. Sure enough, Google
will have you know, the CIA has declassified dossiers confirming that
in 1952 the agency decided Arbenz must go: “How does not matter.” Eight
years after Torrijos died in a mysterious plane crash, Perkins reminds
us, the United States invaded Panama and imprisoned General Manuel
Noriega, an episode lost in the first Gulf war but that in retrospect
replays as an affront to the most basic notions of sovereignty and

I was stationed in the Panama Canal Zone and my father worked for
the infamous United Fruit Company, writes another of Confessions' reviewers. To say the least, I agree with Mr. Perkins. For
all the online commentary and the thousands of browser hits, Perkins's
book is really about something you can't glean from search engines.
It's about perceptions, and how they reflect your own. It is often the
personal stories that tell the bigger truths, an Amazoner weighs in. I
value the perspective I get from Noam Chomsky and Chalmers Johnson.
None of these, though, explains it from the ground up. The ground,
after all, is where invasion really feels like invasion. Where torture
feels like torture. If you want to understand “why they hate us,”
writes Yan in Shanghai, read this book.

And that's where Perkins gets to me. My grandfather built nuclear
power plants for Bechtel in Taiwan, and my dad was a diplomat in China.
When I was a kid we lived in a crowded, beige former opium port called
Guangzhou. My dad spent much of his time meeting provincial officials,
advancing the causes of American companies like Nike and Proctor &
Gamble. It was a bitch. Perhaps to get away, to detach himself from all
the dilemmas created by geopolitics, my father devoted many of his
vacation days to visiting shrines to those mostly altruistic pioneers
of globalization, the Jesuits. On one of those trips he met a beggar
child who was badly burned — deliberately burned, he realized, to
elicit sympathy. Now, we had met hundreds of beggars in those years,
fellow men with distended bellies and limbs the width of pencils and
deformities you couldn't in your wildest dreams believe, and my dad is
a big-hearted man. But never before had he felt so personally
responsible, so overcome with the rottenness of the system, that he
broke down sobbing.

That night after dinner, sitting with my mom alone at the
ostentatious marble table the government had provided us, I heard him
crying again. The thing is, he wasn't responsible, and he knew that.
But my dad still cries, when you bring up that story. I'm crying right

For Perkins, writing Confessions was part of the mission he's
pursued for the past dozen or so years, which is no less than changing
the world. It says so right on the website of his nonprofit, With the new millennium came the realization that a
powerful grassroots movement is necessary to channel the energy from
our awakened individual consciousness into actions. If it sounds New
Age, it is, but the basic idea is the same one that leads people to
become, say, journalists (a career in which Perkins himself dabbled as
an assistant at the Boston Record American back in 1965): that
knowledge, consciousness, breeds understanding and, ultimately,
more-enlightened policies, more-just systems.

Before Confessions, Perkins wrote five books on shamanism and
indigenous cultures. All of his efforts — Confessions included — are
full of dreams and visions. In The World Is as You Dream It, he takes
the hallucinogen ayahuasca and sees a flock of what I took for birds
that turns out to be the Wright brothers in small airplanes that zoom
overhead, and later finds himself surrounded by dangerous, speeding
cars. Sometimes I wondered whether I had gone too far, Perkins wrote in
another book. There were many occasions when I feared that I might be
losing my sanity and the ability to discern between the different
levels of reality. (A blogger known as the Opinionated Bastard writes,
Given that his last few books were on shamanism, I was deeply skeptical
that John didn't just make up the whole thing after a little too much
peyote. The Bastard has a point.)

Dreams are important, Perkins contends, because they enable the
dreamer to visualize a different future, and then shapeshift to fit it.
This shapeshifting takes three forms: There's cellular, which involves
actual physical transformation, such as cancer or aging, or becoming
something else, like a jaguar or a tree. (Or a piece of furniture:
Jessica Perkins swears her father once disappeared into thin air during
a game of hide-and-seek, then reappeared a few minutes later,
explaining, “I shapeshifted into the chair.”) There's institutional.
The American Revolution, democracy, was a shapeshift. Christ walking on
water. September 11. Death. All shapeshifts. What we dream, happens.

And then there's personal shapeshifting, which is what Perkins did
when he left Main to start a new career as an energy entrepreneur. He
takes credit for revolutionizing — institutionally shapeshifting — the
entire utility industry, which seems a stretch: The power plant
designed by Perkins's company was beset by technical problems and
closed ahead of schedule. “But it sure was great spending time with
John,” says his partner, Dan Shalloway. “He's full of ideas.” After
relocating to Florida and moving on to other ventures — leading
expeditions into the Amazon, lecturing on native religions — Perkins
shapeshifted again. There he was, in a candlelit Embassy Suites
ballroom, giving his consciousness-raising spiel before 50 or so
cross-legged free thinkers at the 2003 Bioneers conference in San
Rafael, California, when suddenly he said something nobody expected:

“I used to be an economic hit man,” he told the audience. “I'm coming clean for the first time.”

I had hoped Perkins would do the same with me. His publicist had
promised us time together. He was going to come to Boston, and the plan
was for him to show me Claudine's apartment and the library room where
they met, to make it all real. Then, two weeks before he is to make the
trip, Perkins goes through another shapeshift of amazing proportions.
He gets sick: diverticulosis, a disease associated with a high-fat,
low-fiber diet. He's in the hospital 10 days. I lost half the blood in
my body, he writes in a posting on his website. He cancels his visit.

Nearly dying a month ago — partly from overwork and overstress —
taught me that if I want to live long enough to change the world, I
must be much more careful about schedules. So I press him for
verification over the phone. “Claudine, well, I don't know how else to
describe her but 'seductive.' Someone asked who I'd cast to play her in
the movie. I said Catherine Zeta-Jones.” Later I e-mail him about my
doubts: Why are so many people in his book given pseudonyms? Why won't
his ex-wife Ann back him up? Why can't he give the real name of
“Farhad,” the Iranian friend he met while studying at Middlebury, who
later warned him to leave Iran? Come on, Maureen! Get real, he replies.
Ann is a businesswoman now and can't get involved without jeopardizing
her job. Would you want Farhad to get killed? As a journalist you ought
to know the importance of confidentiality. Did you learn nothing from
Deep Throat? The sources that have come out — other EHM and jackals who
have contacted me in the last months — are in my next book, but I don't
intend to reveal them until I publish that book.

Perkins hasn't sold his new project yet, but he shouldn't have any
trouble finding takers. (The corporatocracy, represented by Penguin,
bought the paperback rights to Confessions earlier this year.) When his
next book comes out, it will have the gravitas of a bestselling author
behind it. And whatever visions it contains will be only that much more

“Close your eyes for a minute.” As Perkins addresses the crowd in
the Tilton chapel, it's clear the school has experienced something of a
shapeshift. In Confessions, he portrays his alma mater as a
puritanical, haughty institution where he endured torment as the son of
a poor teacher studying among sneering teenage lords. But today's
faculty and students are an open-minded bunch. Many are dressed in
bright, flowing, ill-advised garb, and they've been joined by scores of
people from every edge of New England who have turned out to hear what
Perkins has to say. He is gaunt but in good spirits. They are all ready
to dream. He invites everyone in the building “to think where your
special talents and gifts are, what you are going to do personally to
create this better world.”

After his speech, a raven-haired teenager named Audrey, a Zeta-Jones
type, comes up to Perkins. He signs her book. She talks about CAFTA.
“It's just like NAFTA, only Central American, and like, no one supports
it. None of the people. But it's obvious guys like these guys” — EHMs —
“are running things.” Perkins smiles and nods authoritatively. “This is
my friend,” says Audrey, introducing a girl in a long purple skirt.
“She's like, skeptical? But then she read your book. And she believes!”

Perkins gets to me. I give him my book. It's full of yellow stickies
where I've marked suspicious passages, and scrawled with phone numbers
and notes from sources.

Keep up your great work, he writes. Change the world!