Your risk of becoming an intelligence target
increases greatly when you travel abroad.
In the Line of Fire:
American Travelers Abroad
While traveling abroad, you
are on the other country’s home turf, where the local security and
intelligence services have many resources available. They can monitor
and, to some extent, control the environment in which you live and do
your work. As an American government official, scientist, or
business traveler with access to useful information, you can become a target of
the local intelligence or security service in almost any country.
Some of the activities that may be directed against you will be quite sophisticated, and you are unlikely
to notice them or to identify them for what they are. Others may be crude and
obvious, like most of those described below.
This article consists of a
series of anecdotes about foreign intelligence activities observed by travelers from the Department of Energy's
Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos, Sandia, and Oak Ridge National
Laboratories. Most of the travelers were scientists traveling overseas
on official business to attend meetings and conferences and to perform
research. They were traveling in countries that place a high priority on
collecting information about U.S. technology.1
Government, as a matter of policy, does not identify publicly which foreign
countries represent the greatest intelligence threat. To do so would
create a false sense of security when dealing with any of the unnamed
countries. The reality is that most technologically advanced or
developing countries, including some democratic countries that are closely allied with or
supported by the United States, place a high priority on acquiring U.S. technology
by both fair means and foul.
The anecdotes below are a typical
sample of observations reported over, and over, and over again by government, business, scientific, and academic
travelers. In some countries, such happenings are rather normal, not exceptional. By
reporting your observations to your security office, you make it
possible for your security office to keep abreast of what is happening
and to warn you and others, before you travel, about things you
might encounter during your trip.
A traveler in a U.S. delegation said that before the start of one of
its meetings, the delegation met in private to discuss talking points,
negotiation strategies, and issues it wanted to avoid with its hosts.
When the meetings began, the host country chairman began his opening
remarks and listed almost point-by-point each of the issues that the
delegation had discussed. Because no host country nationals had been
privy to the delegation's discussions, the traveler was convinced that
the discussions must have been monitored.
A traveler awoke in his hotel room and realized he was late for a
meeting with his team members. On the way out of his room, he saw an
unidentified male standing in the open doorway of a team member's room.
The male turned toward the traveler and said something in the native
language to someone else in the room. Immediately, a woman stepped out
of the room and into the hall. Both individuals appeared very surprised
and nervous about being discovered. The traveler relayed this incident
to the team, none of whom had experienced any problems. The team member
whose room had been entered possessed all the financial data that the
U.S. team was going to use in the negotiations. The host country would
be very interested in obtaining that information.
A traveler attending a workshop returned to his hotel room after
being away for dinner. He went to bed and was awakened six hours later
by a beeping noise. The noise was coming from the traveler's laptop
computer. The computer cover was closed, but the unit was not shut off.
The traveler believes that while he was out of the room, it was searched
and the laptop was opened but not turned off. This caused the battery to
run down, which is what had caused the beeping. The traveler had not
turned on the computer during his trip. No classified, sensitive, or
proprietary information was on the computer's hard drive. On the last
night of the workshop, a banquet was held, and a considerable amount of
alcohol was consumed by participants. However, one host country
participant was observed to be drinking no more than an ounce or two all
night. Later, this individual offered to provide a woman for the
traveler and another colleague. Both declined.
During a workshop, a traveler was approached by a host country
national who addressed the traveler by name before the traveler had a
chance to put on his name tag. Throughout this week of meetings, this
individual was very attentive to the U.S. travelers. He was interested
in learning about the traveler's laboratory address and how the
traveler's organization in the laboratory was related to other
A traveler found four entries for "guest access" on his
laptop computer. The computer had been locked with a commercially
available padlock and left in his room unattended. It was not clear if
someone had actually accessed any files on the hard drive. He then
checked the computer's protection software and found another "guest
entry" had been logged on. The date of this entry coincided with a
previous trip the traveler took to the same country.
A traveler telephoned his wife at home.
During their conversation, his wife mentioned an upcoming bus trip that
she would be taking and that they would be playing bingo on the bus. A
short time later, someone mentioned to the traveler the bingo trip that
his wife had talked about. The next day, another person asked,
"What is bingo?"
A traveler presented various lectures
to university audiences and the general public throughout the country.
Although the presentations were all unclassified, the traveler had to
deflect several questions from host country nationals at each venue that
touched on sensitive or classified information. At one lecture, he was
asked questions about a specific nuclear isotope and its relation to
U.S. nuclear devices.
A traveler was propositioned by prostitutes every night. On the first
night, he received a phone call from a prostitute within a few minutes
of entering his hotel room. This was the case each night, and he did not
think it was the same woman every night. He declined these offers. On
one occasion, a prostitute knocked on his hotel door. The traveler said
that there was a female "hall monitor" in the hotel. He
believed that the monitor was providing surveillance for prostitutes.
In a moment of frustration, a traveler mentioned to another traveler
while in his hotel room that "any decent hotel would at least have
a spare roll of toilet paper in each room." Later that day, upon
returning to the hotel room, the traveler noticed that there was an
additional roll of toilet paper in his room. This and other unusual
occurrences during the visit led the traveler to believe that audio
surveillance was being utilized.
While engaged in negotiations in another country, a laboratory team
reported that the host nation participants were very forceful in trying
to have a particular technology included in the contract's statement of
work. This technology currently cannot be shared and thus was not
included in the statement of work.
A traveler noticed that his laptop computer had been tampered with
while it was left unattended in the closet of his hotel room. When he
turned on the computer, he noticed that someone had successfully
bypassed and turned off the password protection. The battery compartment
door on the underside of the computer was broken. The traveler reported
that one of his colleagues had a similar problem with his laptop.
A traveler reported that a colleague placed something in his suitcase
that would alert him if the suitcase was searched during his absence.
Later, the suitcase was searched, but nothing was taken from it.
A traveler was invited to join a high-ranking official on a hunting
trip for the weekend. The traveler told the official that he had been
briefed and instructed to always bring along another team member when
traveling in that country. The official told him he could bring along
his host country's interpreter. The traveler did not go on the hunting
While staying at a guest house, a traveler placed his belongings
on the shelves in the room. He carefully placed his business paperwork
between various clothing items. Several hours later, when he returned to
his room, he noticed that someone had gone through his papers, because
they were out of order and sloppily put back in different places. Also,
someone attempted to access his electronic organizer.
A traveler was approached by an interpreter with questions about his
personal life. The traveler was not comfortable with these questions and
refused to answer them.
A traveler suspected that the briefcase he had
left in his hotel room had been tampered with. His briefcase, which he
never locked during the trip, was found locked when he tried to open it.
The briefcase contained nothing sensitive or classified, and nothing
appeared to be missing.
A traveler reported that the interpreter from the host country
appeared to be compiling biographical information on him. The
interpreter said that he recognized the traveler from an article in a
trade magazine, which the traveler found unlikely.
An individual who was not from the host
country asked a traveler questions about his new work at his laboratory.
The traveler was surprised by this question, because few people knew of
his new assignment, and this was not related to the purpose of his
travel. The traveler said that it seemed the individual was specifically
assigned to him to elicit information. The traveler did not provide the
A traveler experienced a burglary in
his second-floor hotel room. The traveler's briefcase was taken, but
other valuables, including money left next to the briefcase, were not
taken. The briefcase contained documents with proprietary and sensitive
information, the traveler's laboratory identification badge, and his
office key. The briefcase was later recovered and returned to the
traveler with all the contents intact by a host country colleague.
A traveler at an international
conference was approached by another participant who asked for a list of
fission products. The traveler thought this participant was asking about
fission products released from nuclear reactors and said these were
available in the open literature. The participant then said that he
wanted products from nuclear weapons. The traveler told him that he did
not work in that area. The participant then asked for the names of
people who do work in that area.
At a meeting that was held in a hotel,
housekeepers entered the conference room and rearranged some of the
plants, placing one plant very close to the traveler and another U.S.
laboratory colleague. Their host joked that they could not hear them
well enough and so moved the plant closer. The traveler presumed that
the plan contained a bug.
Bugging Hotel Rooms,
Bugs and Other Eavesdropping Devices,
1. All anecdotes are from United States General Accounting Office, Department of
Energy: National Security Controls over Contractors Traveling to Foreign
Countries Need Strengthening, GAO/RCED-00-140, June 2000.