Special Advice For Activists And Dissidents

Knowing the special concerns and avoiding the special risks that apply to you


If you are a political activist or dissident, don't expect that just crossing borders will somehow make you immune to the repressive antics of the Bush administration and the country's reactionary state security apparatus. It won't - I can vouch for that fact from personal experience. If anything, it will actually increase the harassment and intimidation - the covert tentacles of Foggy Bottom truly stretch far and wide.

And as an American exile, it can also make you a convenient target for people who do not distinguish between the U.S. government and its foreign policy, and the American people themselves; this is going to become an increasing problem as foreign populations begin to blame the American people themselves for unleashing George Bush Junior on the world, and ignorance of Dubya's antics cannot be claimed after the 2004 election - and in my experience, foreign populations are already beginning to target Americans abroad because of that. In addition, in certain countries, particularly in Latin America, you can even find yourself targeted by American-sponsored (and in rare cases, even American-operated) death squads - see my special advice at the bottom of this page for advice on dealing with this threat.

What exile will do for you is make you less vulnerable to future repression that is coming within the U.S. - the gulag that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has begun to prepare for people the government doesn't like (currently being built under the name, "Operation Endgame"), and the increasingly brutal and intolerant behavior of the local police in the States, as well as the increasingly intolerant attitude of the American people themselves towards liberal politics. But once the U.S. has become repressive, it will inevitably become more inward-focused as it has inevitably fewer resources, domestically and internationally, to project its power abroad, so external repression is likely to ease. So in the short run, your life will be tougher abroad, like it or not, while the United States is going down the tubes economically and politically. Eventually, you will appreciate the wisdom of expatriation and exile once the U.S. has become hell-on-earth for anyone who is not economically well-heeled and towing to the party line politically. If you are a leftist, once the locals abroad get to know you and your politics, it has been my experience that they'll become some of the best friends you ever had, because in many countries, especially in countries that have a long history of American intervention, they will really appreciate your politics. Unlike Americans, they will greatly appreciate what you have done and are trying to do for them and for your own country, and you will find yourself feeling much more comfortable living abroad among them ultimately, than living at home.


Political refugee status is theoretically available in most countries in the world, but actually getting it is another matter, particularly for Americans. Don't be surprised if your immigration clerk or interrogator accepts at face value the old American propaganda about "freedom, liberty and justice-for-all" uncritically, and views your application with considerable skepticism. Some countries are relatively easy compared to the average (Ireland, The Netherlands, Sweden and Canada, though I do not recommend the latter), and others are nigh unto impossible (most African countries and many in south and east Asia - anywhere to which refugees do not normally flee). The main advantage of refugee status is that it is usually granted quickly if it is going to be granted at all, and requires a minimum of documentation (other than your passport and proof of your claim of persecution are usually sufficient, though you may be asked to pay for an Interpol check). You can also work legally in most countries as a political refugee. The downside is that the status is normally temporary, and must usually be reapplied for, from scratch, every year. It can also usually be revoked at the whim (or receipt of a bribe) of the inspector who is supervising your case - in which case you can find yourself on a plane home the next day. Also, if you are an American, expect your claim to be greeted with suspicion and considerable skepticism - so be prepared to provide iron-clad evidence - threat letters, answering machine recordings, photographs, etc. - and be prepared for your evidence to be subjected to skeptical forensic analysis, so make sure that what you provide is genuine, unaltered - and damning. Your statement alone will not be sufficient in most countries, particularly if you are from the United States. Because of the temporary nature of refugee status in most countries, you're better off applying for a more normal residence status if your intent is permanent expatriation.

As a dissenter or activist, if your politics are left-of-center, you should assume that you have been surveilled while still in the United States - even if you have never attended a protest rally, fought a police-brutality action, run a loud, seditious web site, expressed sympathy for a terrorist group's cause, or organized a demonstration. I know - I have learned the hard way, having found I was (and remain) the target of surveillance, even though I have never done any of those things. The FBI in the U.S., and the CIA abroad have much more intrusive functions than the vast majority of Americans assume as the result of their carefully cultivated public persona as legitimate law enforcement and intelligence gathering agencies. Actually, while they serve those functions, they are also much more than that - they are "national security" agencies, whose highest-priority function is to protect the government and the political class from you. For their employees working in that function almost always covertly, the constitutional niceties of freedom of speech, privacy, due process of law, Bill of Rights, etc., simply don't exist, and that gives them an overwhelming advantage. Because you have been taught to assume that you have constitutional rights that are being respected by your government, and you can therefore relax, your behavior means that these boys are quite accustomed to playing tennis with the net down when it comes to watching you. That is an advantage they are quite skilled at fully exploiting, and their unlimited resources and years of careful training means they can exploit it very effectively indeed.

If you are a blogger and your blog touches on politics in a serious way, either foreign or domestic, you can expect that your blogging activities, and with them, your other cyber-activities are certainly being watched, even if you have not yet felt the heavy hand of the state security agencies. If you want to continue your blogging activities abroad, I would highly recommend that you download and carefully read the Handbook For Bloggers And Cyber-Dissidents (pdf, 1.79 mb.), published by Reporters Without Borders. It has some extremely valuable information on maintaining privacy and security in cyberspace and safety in blogging activities, web browsing and email in a censored environment, though its section on email privacy is a bit weak - the information in the webpage package linked below offers a much more secure strategy, and integrating suggestions from both is ideal.

To understand the hazards you face in terms of surveillance by security agencies, you need to know the basics of who has been spying on you, who is going to spy on you, why, and, most importantly, how. Providing all the details you need to know is far beyond the scope of this article, and so I am providing what I believe to be a valuable resource here in the form of an extinct web site, which has been collected into a zip file which you can download here. Download it, unzip its contents to a directory you create or to your desktop, and read it thoroughly and carefully until you understand its contents in the context of your life abroad. And read it again from time to time, and keep what you learn there in the back of your mind. Not only does it teach you the basics of how the security agencies go about spying on you, but how to detect that surveillance, what to do about it, and how to organize and even run an underground organization in the face of it. It is important that you read the information all the way to the end - you will be surprised at how many little snippets of info you discover will be important, that you would have never dreamed would be relevant to your situation. If you understand and use the information it provides with discipline, you have at least some hope of survival in the face of the kind of political repression that you are going to face. After reading it, you will quickly come to understand why that web site has disappeared from the Internet and all the people who were involved with it seem to have "mysteriously" fallen off the face of the earth. It is a bit dated, but is nevertheless very valuable as you will see.

Information that the document linked above does not include (or situations that have changed since it was written) that is important for you to know:

Precautions you will need to take when you arrive in your new home: