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Friday, January 20, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Book Review

Conscience, confession from an agent of greed

Special to The Seattle Times

"Confessions of an Economic Hit Man"
by John Perkins
Plume, 303 pp., $15

The term "economic hit man" had not entered common usage until 2004, when John Perkins published his book with those three words in the title. Coming from the little-known publisher Berrett-Koehler as a 2004 hardcover and given its weighty topic, it seemed "Confessions of an Economic Hit Man" would sell poorly. Instead, it sold well, finding its way onto best-seller lists.

Now comes the trade paperback version, from an Establishment publisher. It includes new material from Perkins, including an 11-page epilogue answering questions from readers of the hardcover.

An economic hit man as defined by Perkins is a consultant to governments outside the United States who issues dishonest reports to persuade those governments to build dams, roads and other expensive infrastructure projects. If the governments agree, the construction contracts then are awarded to greedy U.S. companies with the assistance of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other U.S.-dominated global entities that are part of what Perkins terms "the corporatocracy."

Coming up

John Perkins will read from "Confessions of an Economic Hit Man," at 7 p.m. Monday at Seattle's University Book Store (206-634-3400; www.ubookstore.com).

Perkins served as one of those economic hit men during the 1970s, as an employee of Charles T. Main, a Boston-based consulting firm with contracts in Indonesia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Ecuador, Panama and other nations visited by the author.

Although Perkins found his job fascinating, he developed qualms early. After quitting Main in 1980, he thought off and on about confessing through book writing. But he published nothing about his underhanded ways until after Sept. 11, 2001. The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon made it impossible for Perkins to ignore the long-term hostility fed by American economic hit men around the globe for decades. A conscience-stricken conversation with his daughter, who had recently graduated from college, sealed Perkins' decision to reveal all.

Like almost all autobiographies, Perkins' account is difficult to check for accuracy. In scene after scene, only he can say for sure what passed through his mind as he bilked foreign governments on behalf of the corporatocracy, eventually contributing to human misery in nation after nation. Because Charles T. Main is no longer in business, because so many transactions occurred behind a veil of secrecy, because so many of the actors are dead or culpable, Perkins can say pretty much anything he wants about his high-risk, high-reward life without fear of contradiction.

Should we believe Perkins' contention that the corporatocracy and the U.S. government conspired to kill the overly independent presidents of Ecuador and Panama via plane crashes? Should we accept Perkins' account that a mysterious woman who used the false name of Claudine Martin brought him to her Boston apartment on a regular basis to indoctrinate him into the realm of economic hit men? And that years later, when Perkins tried to find Martin, he could summon up no trace of her?

She might be fictional, a convenient plot device. She might be a composite. Or Perkins' account of Martin might be completely truthful. It would be helpful to interview Perkins face-to-face, to ask about his documentation of the training sessions with the shadowy operative. But readers and book reviewers are not normally given such opportunities. The endnotes are useful, as far as they go. The facsimile of Perkins' résumé from the 1970s, included in the text, is persuasive when it comes to vetting portions of the book. Random checks by this reviewer on certain individuals and events chronicled by Perkins tend to lend confidence to what he says.

On balance, Perkins' book rings true. Even if some of it is phony or exaggerated, as is the case with so many memoirs published since time immemorial, the book is legitimately educational. The revelations about how economic hit men (and women) operate are fascinating. Perkins is not the first author to question the motives of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, including their dominance by craven U.S. government appointees, nor will he be the last. He does, however, bring new information to the longtime discussion.

Every reader who cares about central government integrity, the alleviation of poverty in relatively primitive (by U.S. standards) nations, why terrorists target the United States and the overweening outlook for global peace will take away valuable knowledge from Perkins' confessional.

Steve Weinberg is a freelance investigative journalist. He lives in Columbia, Mo.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


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