Traveling like a spy isn’t as sexy as it sounds

Al Kamen
Columnist January 24, 2012

We were thinking about going overseas, worrying about the usual stuff that travelers from Washington fret about — a weak dollar, suntan lotion, visa requirements, shots and inadvertently disclosing secret information.

Fortunately, we recalled some instructions we got a while back from the National Security Agency — the super-secret cryptography operation at Fort Meade that monitors international communications — explaining the do’s and don’ts of “defensive travel.”

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993. View Archive

The agency reminds super-spooks that even “if you plan to travel . . . for vacation” you’ve got to submit a “UFT” — Unofficial Foreign Travel — request, which is Form K2579.

Once you’ve gotten approval and are off on vacation, you’re advised to “vary your routine as much as possible. Predictability equals vulnerability!” After all, “If an adversary doesn’t know your next move — it makes their job much tougher!”

Okay. So, if you’re in, say, Beijing, don’t go out to the Great Wall. In Shanghai, avoid the Bund and the early-morning ballroom dancing.


If you see Spanish actress Penelope Cruz when traveling abroad, just keep walking, the NSA advises. (Michael Kappeler/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

“Try to avoid crowds and demonstrations,” we’re told. That means forget going to Tahrir Square in Cairo and most any city in Syria until they kick out Assad.

Finally, “internationalize your appearance.” No paisley burqas, for example. Or, when running with the bulls in Pamplona, don’t forget it’s white pants and shirts with a red scarf.

Most of all, remember that “reporting contact with foreign nationals is a requirement you agreed to when you were indoctrinated.”

So you’ve got to “report the following,” we’re told. That includes:

●“Close and continuing association with non-U.S. citizens.”

●“Contact with an employee or representative of a foreign government.”

●“Sexual contact with a non-U.S. citizen.”

Not clear who you should report this last one to — your spouse or your control officer. We suggest that the latter, since he probably already monitored it, would be safer.

Some might suggest such contact is not going to be a significant problem for the NSA. As our colleague Dana Priest noted in her book “Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State,” the running joke amongst spooks at other agencies is: “How can you tell the extrovert at NSA?”

Answer: “He’s the one looking at someone else’s shoes.”

Trash, the final frontier

Anti-litter campaigns on this planet are probably as old as the Stone Age, when hunters cluttered the landscape with half-eaten mastodon bones. (Must have worked. You don’t see many of those bones around anymore.)

But now we’re hearing that litterers are junking up outer space as well. In fact, there are some 21,000 items of space junk — weighing about 6,600 tons — out there. Some of them are “dead” satellites or spent booster rockets. The oldest piece of junk still in orbit, the State Department says, is the Vanguard I satellite, launched in 1958.

And there are hundreds of thousands of other objects too small to track that can damage satellites and the international space station. Then there’s stuff astronauts dropped, such as a glove, cameras, a wrench, pliers, a tool bag and a toothbrush, the department said.

No problem when it was just us and the Soviets. Now there are about 60 countries, plus all sorts of commercial and academic satellite operators, the department says, “creating an environment that is increasingly congested.” (Maybe they could try HOV lanes?)

Add this to potential damage Tuesday to communications and such from the biggest solar storm in years.

So Washington “has decided to join with the European Union and other nations to develop an International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced last week. The first extraterrestrial anti-litter campaign.

Because Newt is busy

You’d think that in a town rife with think tanks, consultants, pointy-headed intellectuals and inveterate chin strokers, ideas would be a dime a dozen.

Apparently not.

Seems the U.S. Agency for International Development disagrees, and it’s setting up yet another idea factory to churn out bright and shiny proposals.

And they won’t come cheap. We’re told the agency is trolling its budget for somewhere around $10 million to create a kind of decentralized think tank.

USAID characterized the plan, which it has released in draft form, as a way of tapping into the collective wisdom of academia to create research-and-development teams across the country. They’ve suggested setting up an unnamed number of centers — some at individual colleges and universities, some made up of several such institutions — aimed at tackling problems of global development.

“The question is how to make use of the intellectual power that’s out there to define and solve some of the world’s most challenging development issues,” a USAID official tells us.

They say no budget has been set, but an individual college might get a million or so, while a collaborative center made up of a few schools could get $4 million to $5 million.

Riboflavin slighted again

Here’s one of the most only-in-Washington events we’ve seen in a while. The American Bakers Association is feting an arcane accomplishment on Wednesday night at a Capitol Hill celebration: Folks, prepare to raise a glass to “the fortification of enriched grains with folic acid.”

A party at which lawmakers can celebrate acid? Timothy Leary would have been proud.

Actually, as the invitation says, consumption of folic acid is critical for the prevention of birth defects. Unclear whether that factoid is something that gets you in a party-down mood.

The bakers group, which reps the wholesale baking industry, calls folic-acid fortification “one of the top ten public health achievements in this century.” Does this mean we can soon expect a cocktail soiree for the polio vaccine? Hors d’oeuvres for seat belts? Tequila shots for Viagra?

Time to break out the party hats.

With Emily Heil

The blog: washingtonpost.com/
intheloop. Twitter: @InTheLoopWP.

Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Politics