bullet Your risk of becoming an intelligence target increases greatly when you travel abroad.

In the Line of Fire:
American Travelers Abroad

While traveling abroad, Americans 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 Americans live and work. Any American government official, scientist, or business traveler with access to useful information can become a target of the local intelligence or security service in almost any country. 

Some of the intelligence activities directed against Americans traveling or stationed abroad are quite sophisticated and unlikely to be noticed or identified for what they are. Others are 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. Many were traveling in countries that place a high priority on collecting information about U.S. technology. 1

The U.S. Government, as a matter of policy, does not identify publicly those foreign countries which represent the greatest intelligence threat. 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 illegal as well as legal means.


The anecdotes below are a typical sample of observations reported over, and over, and over again by government, business, scientific, and academic travelers. All these anecdotes fall into one of two general categories -- penetration of hotel rooms or other indicators of intelligence interest. In some countries, such happenings are normal, not exceptional. All personnel who experience such activities are supposed to report this to their security office, so that security personnel can keep abreast of what is happening and warn other travelers. This type of experience should also be reported during the personnel security investigation even if the subject has previously reported it to his or her security office.

Penetration of Hotel Room

  • 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 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, the room was searched and the laptop was opened and inspected 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 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 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.

Other Examples of Intelligence Interest

  • 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 laboratory programs.
  • 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.
  • 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 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 trip.
  • 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 plant contained a bug.
  • 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 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 requested information.

It bears mentioning that the above anecdotes are known only because the foreign intelligence or security service made a mistake, such as leaving papers in a different order, locking a briefcase that the traveler did not lock, failing to turn off a laptop computer, etc. The frequency with which such activities are successful without leaving any evidence behind is, of course, unknown.

Related Topics: Bugging Hotel Rooms, Bugs and Other Eavesdropping Devices, Risks During Foreign Travel.

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.