Surveillance Paranoia and my London Bust

There’s a new video on the perils of foreign travel out from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (which oversees the CIA, NSA, etc.) “Know the Risk – Raise Your Shield” recommends getting a throwaway cell phone and a new/temporary email address when traveling abroad. It shows how foreign immigration officials can work with hotels and others to vacuum up the data on travelers’ electronic devices.

Damn, I’m glad we don’t have to worry about that happening in this country. My impression was that federal agencies considered the use of throwaway cell phones to be a terrorist warning sign but oh bother.

The video clip of an immigration agent triggering surveillance of an incoming traveler brought back memories of my last trip to London. Here’s the scoop on that 2006 jaunt:

I arrived at London’s Heathrow Airport, coming in from Hamburg, Germany and saw an immigration line that was surprisingly short. There were two British female clerks behind their desks waiting to examine non-European arrivals. The women were blond yet androgynous. Only one of them was working – the other was leaning forward, with her head propped up on one hand, looking like she was doing on-the-job training with Quaaludes. She stared languidly in the direction of the other one.


The clerk who was working glanced listlessly at the American passport I passed over to her.

“Is this your first visit to the UK?”

“No, I visited England in 1977.”

“Are you here for business or pleasure?”


“What is your occupation?” she asked.

“Journalist,” I replied. I had carefully printed that out in the immigration form under the category “Occupation.” But since this woman worked for the government, maybe she didn’t read so good. Or maybe she was trying to catch me disavowing what I wrote 10 minutes earlier.

“What will you be doing in the U.K.?”

“I am going to be interviewed by a television network.”

She showed a flicker of response.

“Which one?” she asked, as her monotone waned.

“Al Jazeera,” I replied.


Her head snapped back – her eyes went wide for about three seconds- and her mouth may have fallen open a bit, though I’m not sure about that last detail.

You would have thought that I had confessed to intending to firebomb the entry guard booth at Buckingham Palace.

“Oh,” she finally said, looking as if I had bounced a brick off the side of her head. I had a hunch that she was not accustomed to that answer.

She turned the form over and begin semi-feverishly jotting down notes, eyeing me warily. (A few months earlier, the British press had revealed that President Bush, in a 2004 conversation with Prime Minister Tony Blair, suggested bombing Al Jazeera’s headquarters in Doha).

“How long will you be in Britain?” she asks.

“Between two and four days,” I replied.

“What will you be doing in London after the interview?”

She may have hoped that her deft question would elicit a full confession.

“I might go around looking at the used book stores,” I replied. “Are most of them in the Strand area?”

After a terse pause, she replied, “There are used book stores all over the London.” I have never yet met a government employee who gave me good recommendations on used book stores.

She waved the passport under the computer/laser “reader” several times – may have done something else – and then indicated that I was permitted to enter the country.

But it did seem to take an awfully long time for my suitcase to come through on the luggage carousel.

Like my 1980s visits to communist Romania and East Germany, I presumed I had “company” for my time in Britain.

Here’s the transcript of my interview with Al Jazeera host Amhed Mansour. I have not been able to track down a translation of the show (which was conducted in Arabic with simultaneous translation into my earpiece). Mansour has done great work; I wrote about him last year when the German government detained him at the behest of Egypt’s murderous military regime.

Actually, I also had immigration challenges the first time I went to Britain. Here’s the write-up on that incident from Public Policy Hooligan:

So I skipped across the English Channel on an overnight ferry from Le Havre to Southampton. Shortly before the ship landed, passengers lined up for the immigration formality. Almost everyone except me was British or French, and they were waved through by a young British clerk dressed not quite as gaudily as the admirals in Gilbert and Sullivan operas. He looked like an androgynous ectomorph predestined to work for the government.

I have forgotten if he wrinkled his nose as I handed him my passport and filled-out forms. When the guy’s head start spinning around like that scene in the movie Exorcist, I suspected there might be a glitch.

“You wrote on the form that you’re a philosopher – what the hell does that mean?!!?” he squawked.

“I’ve been reading a lot of philosophers for three years now…”

“You said it was your occupation. Do you have any proof?” he snapped. I noticed that his left foot had begun shaking, but figured it’d be rude to mention it.

This was the moment when the endless “Be Prepared” lectures I endured as a Boy Scout finally paid off. I unsnapped the top of my knapsack and fetched out my one-word hitchhiking sign from the prior day: PHILOSOPHE.

“That’s French for ‘Philosopher.’”

“I KNOW WHAT IT SAYS – I can read French,” he practically screamed.

“I didn’t get any rides until I put the sign down,” I shrugged. “Maybe the frogs didn’t think I was a philosopher, either.”

“Do you admit that you wrote a false statement on your immigration application?!!?”

“I philosophize, I also write – you can do both in America. I just sold my first article. You want to see it?”

No, he didn’t. Probably for the best. If he saw that quote from Trotsky, he might have accused me of being linked to Beider-Meinhof, Germany’s premier terrorist group.

For about 10 minutes, this twerp acted like he might deny me entry into England. I had to show my return ticket and all my cash and travelers’ checks –as well as answer a few dozen questions – to allay his suspicions that I planned to stay forever in the United Kingdom. Geez, it wasn’t like I was carrying a bazooka or wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the punk rock Sex Pistols’ line calling for “Death to the Queen and her Fascist Regime.”

On the other hand, maybe the immigration dude simply had a good nose for political troublemakers.

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