E. Alan Platt, a former CIA agent, is vice president of global security and intelligence for International SOS (www.inter nationalsos.com), a medical and security assistance company. David Wallis interviewed Platt by telephone from his office in Trevose, Pa.
Q What security precautions can travelers take before setting off on a trip?
A Make sure people at home know your itinerary -- the flights you are on, the hotels you are staying in, how you can be contacted at any given moment of the day in case of an emergency.
If you are going to [someplace like] Afghanistan or Islamabad, you need to be aware of the surroundings, the culture, the do's and the don'ts, all of the things that can inadvertently get you in trouble if you take a wrong turn, say the wrong thing or make a wrong hand gesture.
Aside from Iraq, what countries should U.S. travelers avoid in the coming months?
The whole Middle East region is going to be in turmoil. Highly populated Muslim countries such as Indonesia, the Philippines, Pakistan are also going to be areas of concern . . . There's a potential for spontaneous civil disobedience, unrest, violent protest and terrorist activity.
A lot of this is common sense. It's just that the press of business or your own invincibility gets in the way of that common sense a lot of times.
Suppose you find yourself in the middle of a spontaneous violent protest?
Obviously, do everything possible to minimize your profile. If there is a likelihood of protest, don't go out to take pictures. Stay in your hotel room or safe haven that's been provided to you. If you are caught in a spontaneous protest, get out of there as quickly and calmly as possible. You should not engage in discussion or make eye contact.
How can an American abroad look less like an American abroad?
Americans like to wear sneakers. Many wear jeans when they are traveling. A lot wear logos that are specific to America. They will wear a jersey of their favorite football team. Luggage tags are a giveaway. I like to use luggage tags that have a flap . . .
Wear a nice sports coat and a nice pair of slacks and don't bring attention to yourself by talking loudly.
Should you slap the Canadian flag on your backpack?
You can do that, particularly if you can weave a word or two into conversation that makes you sound like a Canadian.
Or "eh." Just putting a Canadian flag on a backpack [is not enough] if you have not thought out a story to go with it.
This goes back to my old background. You need to have a plausible story so when a casual observer asks, "Oh, so where are you from in Canada?" you say "Ottawa" off the top of your head. Then you need to speak with some authority about Ottawa. Sometimes you need a cover story, which is a terrible thing to say, but that's today's reality.
Suppose someone finds himself held hostage. Any advice on how to behave?
Keep your wits about you. You're not there to change the mind of the hostage-taker. You're there to save your life. You are not going to win an argument with someone who is holding a nine-millimeter to your head.
Do what they ask you to do as calmly and quickly and deliberately as possible. All the while, look for an opportunity that presents itself to escape.
We had an interesting scenario unfold several years ago in Istanbul. Terrorists took over a hotel lobby late one night and started calling the rooms and telling the guests to come downstairs. They were trying to concentrate all the hostages in one area. An employee of a client had the presence of mind to call one of our alarm centers.
We said, "Don't go downstairs. Stay in your room. Hide in the closet. If someone comes to the door pretend you are asleep."
He did that, and [the terrorists] completely forgot about him. Two hours later, when we were scheduled to call him back, there was no answer . . . What he had done was go to the minibar and drink himself to sleep. He just got lit and didn't even hear the phone ring.
Describe the most challenging case that your company has responded to.
During the coup in the Ivory Coast, we evacuated several hundred people, [including] one person who was traumatized because that person had witnessed some of the execution-type killings that had taken place. One of the things we had to determine before we could proceed was whether that person was capable of traveling because of trauma.
Grade the security measures that the government has implemented to protect travelers after 9/11.
I've been impressed with the integrated and dedicated approach to implementing all these new procedures.
Yesterday, going through the airport in Detroit, the new Transportation Security Administration personnel was a vast improvement over what we had before in terms of professionalism and their polite demeanor. The standards are much higher, but the lines haven't gotten much longer.
What do you pack in your suitcase to bolster your safety or deal with any situation?
Enough telephone numbers on me at any given time so that I can contact anybody I need to. My international cell phone. A laptop as a backup. A Swiss Army knife. Plenty of money -- cash, plastic or traveler's checks, so if I do need something, on a moment's notice I can get it, including a ticket out of there.
When I went to a Third World destination, I used to travel with a survival kit: plenty of water, granola bars, a spare tire, matches and a flashlight.
Did you manage to do some sightseeing while traveling on CIA missions?
I tried. Today when I leave my itinerary on the counter before I walk out the door my wife jokes, "It's nice to see where you're going this time."
What was your favorite place to travel to during your service?
Morocco. La Mamounia Hotel in Marrakech was one of my favorite places.
What trick did the CIA teach you that you can share with readers to help them reduce risk abroad?
Stay calm and always be prepared for any eventuality ahead of time. I would sort through in my own mind what I was going to say or do given any circumstance. Have a game plan, including worst-case scenarios.