I have always been a bit skeptical about some of the more salacious claims made in John Perkins' Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, the story of one man's life working for the secretive National Security Agency or NSA. When he was a young man, NSA interrogators interviewed Perkins and explored his "frustration about the lack of women, sex, and money." Perkins fit the NSA's psychological profile, and after being accepted into the organization's shadowy ranks, he landed a corporate job working as an economist with a major consulting firm.
It was all a cover, however, for Perkins' real purpose: as a self-described "economic hit man," the youth was dispatched to poor Latin American countries such as Panama and Ecuador where he was tasked with cheating governments out of money and funneling cash from the coffers of the World Bank into the hands of major corporations and wealthy elites.
No doubt, U.S. intelligence agencies partake in such activities all the time, yet some of Perkins' stories strained my credibility. For example, the author discusses a mysterious woman "consultant" at his firm named Claudine, who came to be the young man's teacher. "My assignment is to mold you into an economic hit man," she tells Perkins. "No one can know about your involvement -- not even your wife." Later, Perkins describes Claudine as, "Beautiful and intelligent; she was highly effective; she understood my weaknesses and used them to her greatest advantage." "Her approach," Perkins wrote, was a "combination of physical seduction and verbal manipulation."
From Claudine to Stratfor's Modest Analyst
I might have dismissed such stories as mere spicy embellishment, but after reading internal e-mails emanating from within the Stratfor intelligence firm, I'm not sure. The e-mails, which were apparently stolen by hacking group Anonymous, were later disclosed by whistle-blowing outfit WikiLeaks. The cache, which reportedly numbers a whopping five million e-mails, reveals the inner workings of a company which provides confidential intelligence services to large corporations, but also key U.S. agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Defense, the Marines and the Defense Intelligence Agency.
Some of the e-mails are strikingly candid and provide insight into Stratfor's slippery and underhanded psychological methods, which are not so far removed from what Perkins describes in his book. Today, Washington is not so focused on Ecuador as in Perkins' day, but Venezuela, a pesky populist ringleader of the left in Latin America. Stratfor president George Friedman, who is interested in long-range geopolitical trends, requested that one of his analysts, Rheba Bhalla, find out more about Hugo Chávez's state of health and the larger political ramifications for Venezuela if the country's firebrand president should falter.
Some of the Stratfor e-mails could have been lifted right out of a sensationalistic scene from Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. In one e-mail exchange, Bhalla explains that the Venezuelan military had been "most cooperative with us lately:"
These guys have been living the good life. They love women... lots of women. They love booze. They love Bora Bora. They are easy to bribe. They don't care about Chávez. They care about maintaining their current lifestyles. We've seen a lot of these military elite reach out to us lately, trying to insulate themselves in a post-Chávez scenario.
On the other hand, Bhalla concedes that her contact, a "well-connected VZ source working with Israel," isn't too reliable. In terms of trust, her source only rated a modest "B-," though "I've gotten better at reading him over the years to tell when he 's feeding me shit and when he's giving useful info." In something out of John Le Carré gobbledygook, Bhalla adds that her "alpha" source required "special handling."
From Modest Analyst to John Le Carré
Friedman, who had just returned from Caracas, then expresses skepticism about Bhalla's source. In a further riff, Friedman says the source "could be valuable "humint" or pure "rumint," but "we can't evaluate accuracy." Always the Godfather, Friedman adds,
One of the reasons I want you to execute missions is to learn how to evaluate sources. This is a very difficult art but one you must learn. The gut is to be trusted only after its well trained.
Defensive and eager to please, Bhalla writes back "Yes, I have much to learn and I may be just an analyst, but I'm not 100 percent incapable of evaluating a source I've known for a while." Seeking to prove her meddle in the bizarre psycho babble of Stratfor, Bhalla adds,
I've listened to what you've told me about reading a source (the Turk with the twitch.) I figured out what this source's twitch is in reading his eyes. I've gotten much better in evaluating what info to take more seriously and what info to disregard.
Perhaps Bhalla had grown weary of being a mere analyst and, like Perkins, yearned for more power. If that was the case, then it seems she finally got her wish. In a follow up exchange, Friedman explains over his blackberry that it was time to "start our conversation on your next phase." In the event that a given source was deemed to have value, Friedman writes, "You have to take control of him. Control means financial, sexual or psychological control to the point where he would reveal his sourcing and be tasked."
Georgetown Alma Mater
Perhaps Bhalla was gunning for more psychological "control" at her job all along. According to her online bio, she is a graduate of Georgetown University's Security Studies program of the School of Foreign Service, a haven for intelligence folk. One associate professor, Elizabeth Stanley, worked as a U.S. Army captain in military intelligence. According to the Georgetown web site, Stanley has experience in something called "mindfulness techniques" and created "mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training (MMFT) to build warrior resilience and optimize individual and team performance." As the founder of the "Mind Fitness Training Institute," Stanley instructed soldiers as well as "organizations operating in high-stress operational environments" in psychological methods.
Will further WikiLeaks disclosures embarrass and shame Stratfor employees, prompting them to come clean and abandon their unsavory work? The track record is hardly encouraging. In the wake of the earlier Cable Gate scandal, not a single U.S. diplomat operating in Latin America came clean to the public and the media about their role throughout the wider region. Perhaps such officials were afraid of losing their jobs, or alternatively saw nothing wrong in what they were doing. Whatever the case, it suggests that brave figures such as John Perkins are in the minority.
Nikolas Kozloff is the author of "Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left" and is the founder of Revolutionary Handbook.