Just act natural.

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How to Travel Like a CIA Agent

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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With the U.S. Senate now the world's most prominent crusader against highly questionable American intelligence practices, Wikileaks -- the site that once released whistleblower bombshells about U.S. military operations abroad and torture in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp -- has been reduced to publishing travel advice. Julian Assange's move into service journalism is a bit sad. But at least readers can now directly benefit from Wikileaks' revelations rather than merely feel helpless outrage.

On Sunday, the site revealed two classified Central Intelligence Agency documents. I feel comfortable in providing this link because it's absurd they were ever classified (much less marked as "NOFORN" -- not for foreign eyes) in the first place. One file, named "Surviving Secondary", teaches CIA operatives the intricacies of attracting as little attention as possible during airport security checks anywhere in the world. The other, entitled "Schengen Overview," explains how European border control systems worked in early 2012. There is nothing in either of them that would justify keeping them secret: Mostly, they're just common sense.

Assange tried to make the most of the scoop. "The CIA has carried out kidnappings from European Union states, including Italy and Sweden, during the Bush administration," Wikileaks' press release quoted him as saying. "These manuals show that under the Obama administration the CIA is still intent on infiltrating European Union borders and conducting clandestine operations in EU member states." Major German and French news sites, on an otherwise quiet news day, dutifully reported on the leak from that angle. But few people will be surprised to know that CIA operatives sometimes pass through foreign airports, including European ones, with fake passports. One can't really expect them to wear their badges on coat lapels while they wait in passport control lines.

The main source of the agency's advice to its operatives is a 2004 manual from an Israeli security consultancy. Spies are told not to show "unusual nervousness or anxiety" and not to switch lines at security. The file further reveals, in case readers didn't already know, that it helps to speak the language of the country that issued your passport, that tickets bought for cash in countries where credit cards are common arouse suspicion and that traveling without baggage and on one-way tickets sets off all kinds of alarms. ("Salvadoran security services identified a suspected Venezuelan government courier on the basis of a military style haircut, physical fitness, casual dress, and little baggage.")

In general, it's a good idea to look your ticket class, which includes the quality of your gadgets; don't wear sweatsuit, in other words, if you're traveling on a diplomatic passport. And it's always a good idea to answer questions consistently and without hesitation.

One CIA operative who was passing through Europe is held up as a positive example. A European security officer found traces of an explosive in his bag. The CIA man explained he had been in counterterrorism training in Washington, DC, but the security officer was initially skeptical. Still, he "consistently maintained his cover story" and was eventually allowed to rebook his flight and leave inhospitable Europe behind.

Reading this story of inconsequential bumbling, I was reminded of the immortal final dialogue in "Burn after Reading":

CIA Superior: What did we learn, Palmer?

CIA Officer: I don't know, sir.

CIA Superior: I don't [expletive] know either. I guess we learned not to do it again.

Still, there is something in the CIA manuals that should indeed worry anyone who travels to or lives in Europe. The agency reveals that out of the 1 million people on the Schengen countries' common watch-list, only 2.5 percent are there because of some criminal activity. The rest of the alerts have to do with immigration matters such as visa denials or expulsions. 

The European entry control system, in other words, is geared to fight illegal immigration, not crime, terrorism or spying. That's good for the agents traveling with fake identities -- and also for terrorists. If Europe's focus ever shifted to looking for more consequential security threats than potentially fraudulent welfare recipients, the CIA might be obliged to write manuals describing more complicated tradecraft than that found in the Wikileaks documents.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Cameron Abadi at cabadi2@bloomberg.net