The CIA Guide to Secondary Screening

A few weeks back I was sent to secondary screening by US Immigration officials upon arrival in Newark. Sure, my story was a bit strange but it seems that perhaps telling the officer too much information (which I did) is as bad as being vague and evasive. I learned that this week when I read the recently published CIA Assessment on Surviving Secondary Screening at Airports While Maintaining Cover now available on It turns out that overly specific answers are a red flag to agents. I’m still not sure which part of the rules I broke, other than being on a most ridiculous journey, when I ran into trouble in Brussels a few years back. Oops.


It is almost hard to believe that most of the document is considered privileged information given how basic and general it is. But there are also sections which include some interesting specifics, like which countries use different types of advance screening methods and which travelers are likely to be flagged more than others passing through 3rd countries (i.e. Cubans passing through Caracas airport are much more likely to be pulled to secondary inspection).

And, even when things don’t look so good, stick to your story:

Even when the traveler does everything right, the best protection during secondary screening is to be well-prepared with a cover story, according to an experienced CIA traveler. In one incident during transit of a European airport in the early morning, security officials selected a CIA officer for secondary screening. Although the officials gave no reason, overly casual dress inconsistent with being a diplomatic-passport holder may have prompted the referral. When officials swiped the officer’s bag for traces of explosives, it tested positive, despite the officer’s extensive precautions. In response to questioning, the CIA officer gave the cover story that he had been in counterterrorism training in Washington, DC. Although language difficulties led the local security officials to conclude that the traveler was being evasive and had trained in a terrorist camp, the CIA officer consistently maintained his cover story. Eventually, the security officials allowed him to rebook his flight and continue on his way. (S//OC/NF)

That bit about “overly casual dress” has me rethinking my habit of wearing the aloha shirt on many trips. Except not really at all.

There’s also a document titled CIA Advice for Operatives Infiltrating Schengen available to read. In my experience you’re better off just landing in France or Italy than worrying about these details.

Have a great trip!

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. I had an empty box (well, it had the styrofoam holder for wine bottles) tested positive for explosives, and it was clearly an otherwise empty box with just styrofoam holder. The system also generate random false positives to make sure the agent is alert.

  2. Flying into Italy is cake. I’ve been whisked through immigration with just the showing of an American passport and in the dozen times that I’ve flown in, I’ve never been asked why I’m there or where I’m staying. I love Italians.

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