How to Travel Like A Spy

“Mr. Bourne, your luggage is waiting for you in Baggage Claim.”

Last December, WikiLeaks did one of its notorious document dumps and revealed some information that frankly thrilled me. The WikiLeaks document release included two reports from the CIA whose titles sound like pitches for summer blockbusters: “CIA Assessment on Surviving Secondary Screening at Airports While Maintaining Cover” (dated September 2011) and, even more up my alley, “CIA Advice for Operatives Infiltrating Schengen” (dated January 2012).

For you civilians, “Schengen” is CIA-talk for Europe and refers to the 1985 Schengen Agreement, which eventually led to the opening of the borders of 26 European countries. As for “secondary screening,” many people are familiar with being plucked out of the security line, and according to the WikiLeaks document, subjected to “in-depth and lengthy questioning, intrusive searches of personal belongings, cross-checks against external databases, and collection of biometrics.”

Ominous! Along with Robert Ludlum-esque anecdotes, these reports outline exactly how “travelers should ensure before traveling that everything that officials can use to examine their bona fides — passports, travel history, baggage, personal electronics, pocket litter, hotel reservations, Web presence — is consistent with their covers.”

Anyone who knows me knows that I read these reports like a Chardonnay Housewife read Fifty Shades of Grey. Here’s what I learned.

Your Electronic Devices May Give You Away.

“Smart phones, iPods, and MP3 players can pose a vulnerability to alias travel because of their requirement for subscriptions.” So while you might be Dr. Smith from Texas on your passport, your recent Netflix binge of Scandal using a subscription billed to Mr. Jones from Chicago may reveal your true identity.

BUSTED. On so many levels.

But on a more serious note, “Russian customs agents at Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow confiscated without explanation a laptop computer, thumb drive, and removable hard drive belonging to a Department of Energy official.” Yikes. Say goodbye to your family vacation pictures!

Your Social Media Should Reflect Your Cover Story.

Everything from geo-tagged Facebook and Twitter updates to Foursquare check-ins to LinkedIn connections can be combed through for signs of an inconsistency in your story. And it’s important to have — or not have — certain cover social media accounts based on your cover: “Security officials might also expect a sales or marketing traveler to have a Twitter account. The absence of such business-related Web accounts probably would raise a business traveler’s profile with officials.”

Appear Relaxed, Bored Or Anything But Nervous, Anywhere In An Airport.

“Foreign airports use cameras and undercover officers to identify passengers displaying unusually nervous behavior. Physiological signs of nervousness include shaking or trembling hands, rapid breathing for no apparent reason, cold sweats, pulsating carotid arteries, a flushed face, and avoidance of eye contact.” Even if you feel anxious about flying — or simply regret having ordered the fish on your flight — never, ever let it show.

Dress The Part.

This may be the funniest anecdote in the report:

“In one incident during transit of a European airport in the early morning, security officials selected a CIA officer for secondary screening. Although the officials gave no reason, overly casual dress inconsistent with being a diplomatic-passport holder may have prompted the referral.”

If only this could be used to detain people who show up to the airport looking like they just walked out of a 4am fire drill.

Your Cover Story Must Be Air-Tight, And You Must Be Able To Back It Up And Repeat It Ad Infinitum.

“Consistent, well-rehearsed, and plausible cover is important for avoiding secondary selection and critical for surviving it.” Even though you’ve got nothing to hide, being pulled out for secondary screening can fray the nerves. Be cool, Hunny Bunny.

What To Do If You’re Chosen For Secondary Screening.

The best course of action is to be relaxed, make consistent eye contact, and answer calmly, succinctly and truthfully (unless you’re a spy, in which case, this is your time to shine!). Specifically, avoid what my mother calls “hemming and hawing,” which can look like stalling and evading if an official is already suspicious.

In addition, some dead giveaways of the above-mentioned frayed nerves include “swallowing, lip biting, perspiring, deep breathing, frequent clothing adjustments, or lint picking;” and words like “maybe” or “almost,” or phrases like “to be honest,” “the truth is” or “swear to God.”

Now, please excuse me while I wipe my browser history.


5 thoughts on “How to Travel Like A Spy

  1. I felt like I was reading about 007. Great writing style. I lived overseas for over 12 years and your blogs have been wonderful. I can see why you were recommended by Jessica Spiegel.

  2. Christine , congrats for such a nice blog! 🙂

    I would like to know your opinion on a comparison site for all kind of peer-to-peer services that I’m creating! So whether you want to find accommodation, buy/sell second hand stuff, learn the local language, try the local food, getting stuff delivered, share a ride for your next trip, meet new people, get a job…you name it! 🙂

    As an expat myself I believe that this is going to make our life abroad much easier!!:)We are trying to gather people for a beta test of the web and mobile apps coming later this year! Looking forward to your feedback!

    -Feel free to subscribe to the beta test at:

    -You can like us on Facebook too! 🙂

    Thanks a lot for the support! We are just starting and need some help to spread the word! 🙂

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