Authored By: Nikolas Kozloff
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 remarks of Claudine, “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.” The author adds, “My time with Claudine already represented the realization of one of my fantasies; it seemed too good to be true.”
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 5 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. 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 dont 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 on spook terminology, 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% 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 waht 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.”
Further indulging his penchant for spook speech, Friedman then declares that “The decision on approach would not come from you but from your handler. This is because you're position is too close to the source and your judgment by definition suspect. Each meeting would be planned between you and your handler and each meeting would have a specific goal not built around discussing the topic of interest which would ideally be hidden but in analyzing him personally and moving toward control.”
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 spooks and 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.
On its web site, Georgetown proudly hocks its spook books which stress unsavory methods such as “guile and theft” no less. According to the blurb for one book, Analyzing Intelligence, “Decision makers matching wits with an adversary want intelligence—good, relevant information to help them win. Intelligence can gain these advantages through directed research and analysis, agile collection, and the timely use of guile and theft. Counterintelligence is the art and practice of defeating these endeavors. Its purpose is the same as that of positive intelligence—to gain advantage—but it does so by exploiting, disrupting, denying, or manipulating the intelligence activities of others. The tools of counterintelligence include security systems, deception, and disguise: vaults, mirrors, and masks. In one indispensable volume, top practitioners and scholars in the field explain the importance of counterintelligence today and explore the causes of—and practical solutions for—U.S. counterintelligence weaknesses.”
The Georgetown program helps its students acquire employment at various entities specializing in destabilization and intelligence work in Latin America, including the CIA and FBI. In addition, students may gain employment at private corporations which have played a role in Venezuela such as SAIC or alternatively work for the public/private International Republican Institute linked to Senator John McCain [for more on both of these outfits see my first book]. In opting for Stratfor, however, Friedman analyst Bhalla seems to have done quite well for herself. In a few short years, the young woman became a sought after commentator on Latin America and Venezuela, being featured in and cited by diverse media outlets including CNN, National Public Radio, FOX News, The O'Reilly Factor and The New York Times no less.
From Cable Gate to Global Intelligence Gate
Though surely bizarre, Friedman’s talk about psychological control over sources shouldn’t come as any great surprise. Whether it is individuals acting from within the U.S. government or outside, such techniques have been widely embraced. Indeed, if anything the Stratfor cables echo many of the revelations stemming from earlier WikiLeaks disclosures. To be sure, U.S. diplomats are not instructed to sleep with their sources, but many of them display the very same curious interest in domination and control.
Within the State Department, for example, staff personnel from the very top down express interest in psychological profiles. As I wrote in this piece dating from 2010, U.S. officials went on a tear trying to get as much dirt as possible about Argentina’s power couple, Néstor and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Prior to Néstor’s recent death, Secretary of State Clinton personally wrote to the American Embassy in Buenos Aires, remarking that the U.S. was drawing up “a written product examining the interpersonal dynamics between the governing tandem.”
Clinton added that State had a pretty “solid understanding” of Néstor’s style and personality, but Cristina remained a mystery. Specifically, Clinton wanted to know how Cristina, an Hugo Chávez ally in the wider region, managed “her nerves and anxiety.” Somewhat bizarrely, Clinton then asked her subordinates whether Cristina was taking any medications. Again and again, the Secretary of State pressed for details about Cristina’s psychological and emotional profile.
Other revelations stemming from the so-called “Cable Gate scandal further underscore the State Department’s peculiar penchant for psychological manipulation in Latin America. Take for example U.S. ambassador in Tegucigalpa Charles Ford, who held Honduran president and Hugo Chávez protégé Manuel Zelaya in low regard. In one cable disclosed by WikiLeaks, Ford remarks almost casually, “Always suspicious of American intentions, he [Zelaya] inexplicably submitted to a psychological profile at my Residence -- twice.” There's got to be more to this story. Are we to believe that Zelaya would simply show up at Ford's house and take a psychological test? Why would this have occurred to Zelaya in the first place? What kind of test was it? Interestingly enough, just like Clinton Ford was very interested in personal medical matters. At one point, he wrote “Zelaya almost assuredly takes strong medication for a severe back problem and perhaps other drugs as well.”
Though Stratfor’s methods are extreme, the WikiLeaks cables reveal that psychological control is very much on the minds of official U.S. policymakers as well. 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.