How to Travel like a Secret Agent

8724981746_4a8c1ceacf_oA new WikiLeaks document reveals that the CIA has all the tips for avoiding complications at the border.

By Benjamin Hayward.

No international traveler wants to be delayed by an extra interview at a border control. Even if you’re not a CIA agent trying to hide behind a fake identity, secondary screening can be lengthy, embarrassing, or worse. Well-meaning travelers can be barred entry to a country for as small a matter as intending to handle a few business affairs while on a tourist visa.

In late 2014, renowned whistle-blowing and diplomatic-cable website WikiLeaks published two classified documents from a previously unknown CIA office called Checkpoint, which provides “tailored identity and travel intelligence”. The classification of the documents bars allied intelligence officers, such as those in NATO, from reading them. The material provides guidelines for CIA agents attempting to covertly cross foreign borders, including into the territories of some of America’s NATO allies.

One of the documents, titled “Schengen Overview”, deals with the risk posed to agents entering the Schengen zone, which is the European region of unrestricted internal borders. It touches on Schengen’s electronic tracking systems, but says that there is little identity threat to CIA operatives so far, as biometric data is not yet used for persons entering the Schengen area with U.S. documents.

As Julian Assange, WikiLeaks’s Editor-in-Chief, points out, “The CIA has carried out kidnappings from European Union states, including Italy and Sweden, during the Bush administration.” These documents reveal that under the Obama administration, the CIA is still intent on infiltrating E.U. borders and breaching the sovereignty of E.U. member states by conducting clandestine operations within.

While much of the leak deals with traveling under a false identity, the other document, titled “Surviving Secondary”, contains useful tips for any traveler. The manual provides advice for avoiding secondary screening at international borders.

All international travelers have their documents checked during a primary screening, but E.U. norms suggest this process should take no more than 20 seconds per passenger. Secondary screening is when you are asked to step aside for additional scrutiny. Officials use this extra time to search and interrogate you and attempt to verify or refute your story with external sources. The details you give will often be checked against your point of contact in the country, whether a family member or your hotel.

The search can be embarrassingly thorough. The leaked documents say that Russian customs agents at Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow confiscated and copied the contents of a laptop computer, thumb drive, and removable hard drive belonging to a U.S. Department of Energy official. The searching of electronic files and even e-mails is common practice for high profile individuals whom border officials evaluate to be a risk.

Secondary screening usually lasts no more than a few hours; that delay can be stressful enough at airport transfers, but every border is different. In Turkey, officials are authorized to detain you for up to 24 hours, and in Brazil, up to 48 hours. What’s more, if you are selected for secondary screening for any reason, you are at increased risk of being denied entry.

On average one in thirty travelers is stopped by U.S. Customs for secondary screening, but the ratio can be much higher in other countries. Sometimes it is unavoidable; document irregularities and even random selection can all lead to secondary. Other times a border official may simply feel that “something is not right” with you, according to a CIA warning to its operatives.

Schengen ePassport gates

Visa applications and airline-provided Advanced Passenger Information (API) allow border officials to pre-select some travelers for secondary screening. The leaks reveal that when API is provided by the airline, border agents watch for unusual ticket purchases, such as cash payments, same-day reservations, or discounts that are indicative of government or military employees.
A known connection to military service, activism, or international NGOs dramatically increases the chance of secondary screening, as does crossing a border associated with illegal migration, terrorism, or drug smuggling risks. An unusual travel history, such as frequent short trips to the screening country or stamps from terrorism-sponsoring countries, can all lead to secondary. Every country keeps an eye out for travelers of certain nationalities or coming from given departure countries, a watchlist based on the unique geopolitical concerns associated with those countries.

But if you haven’t been pre-selected, avoiding secondary screening starts with the lineup. The leaked documents reveal that many airports use cameras and undercover officers to spot suspicious behavior in the lines. Officers in Mauritius, for example, use video monitoring to observe passengers retrieving their baggage and zoom in on faces to study their expressions. Suspicious behavior could include signaling a seemingly unconnected passenger, switching lines, or studying security procedures. They’re also looking for physiological signs of nervousness, according to industry standards outlined in the document. These include “shaking or trembling hands, rapid breathing for no apparent reason, cold sweats, pulsating carotid arteries, a flushed face, and avoidance of eye contact”.

Next, your appearance is profiled in order to evaluate you. Your clothes and baggage and whether these are consistent with your profession, ticket, and travel itinerary are all considered. Many countries will attempt to guess if you are foreign military personnel by your age, fitness level, and haircut.

In the primary interview, “Good preparation is key,” according to the leaked documents. Officials watch for unreasonable explanations of travel and will attempt to catch you in a false statement. They ask about your past travel and check the dates you provide against the cachets in your passport. For all answers, the CIA advises to avoid the common habits of lying: do not allow a significant pause between the question and the answer, and do not provide overly specific responses.

Behavior and demeanor also factor into the decision. Border officials are on the lookout both for those who are verbose out of nervousness and those who appear to be withholding information. Concise yet complete answers with only the relevant details are the best tactic, according to the leaked document:

“A frequent operational CIA traveler to Asia and Europe advises that the most effective prevention of secondary is to have simple and plausible answers to the two most frequently asked questions, ‘Why are you here,’ and ‘Where are you staying.’”

When baggage is also checked during primary screening, border controls are not only looking for contraband. Unusual packing, such as too few items or too many brand new objects may send you to secondary. Bahrain International Airport, for example, refers all travelers carrying unusual electronic equipment to secondary, and Turkish National Intelligence considers “that possession of multiple passports is indicative of an individual attempting to obscure their real reason for traveling”.

In addition to random screening, the document suggests some officials, as in Somalia or Bangladesh, detain airline passengers simply to get a bribe, but don’t assume this is always the case.

Finally, if you are detained for secondary screening, most of the tips for passing primary screening also apply to secondary. Have your story straight, and don’t deviate from it. The CIA suggests that agents who avoid providing unnecessary details probably shorten secondary interviews. And with these tips, you too can pass border scrutiny with ease.

5988255508_e442eeedf8_oIn truth, the leak of these documents threatens border integrity around the world, but so does the free passage of U.S. operatives into foreign nations. The CIA alone shouldn’t benefit from these guidelines. If foreign nations find it worrying that the CIA is sending operatives across their borders, they can now provide the CIA’s advice for covert travel to their own affiliates. Everyone should be able to travel like a secret agent.

Mr. Hayward is a journalist and assistant editor at The Global Intelligence.

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