Undercover Agents and Their Tasks

Undercover agents work under a variety of false identities. They are removed from direct supervisory supervision and must adapt to free lifestyles with a change in dress, language and etiquette.


Those who work under cover may become complicit in the commission of crimes to maintain their cover. The case of Valerie Plame, the CIA operative whose identity was revealed in a syndicated column by Robert Novak, illustrates this point.

Intelligence Gathering

Spies have a public image of cloak-and-dagger secret agents infiltrating enemy countries, but much of intelligence work is undramatic. It can include sifting reports from diplomats, businessmen, accredited military attaches and university-trained researchers in quiet offices. It can also involve measuring signals from radar or emptying a wastepaper basket at the right time.

Spy operations can be highly dangerous, as they often require agents to enter hostile territory or cultivate relationships with suspected criminals. Agents must be careful not to reveal their true identities or they can lose their cover. They may need to carry out multiple operations, blending in and becoming part of their target community over a long period of time.

The intelligence collected by spies must be processed and delivered. The process of collecting information and preparing it for use can take an immense amount of time, from tracking a suspect over a month-long stakeout to sending him an electronic message that he will only receive at the target location.

Spies communicate with each other through a variety of methods, including secret writing and encrypted messages. These are referred to as covert communication or COVCOM. During the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union exchanged sensitive intelligence through radio communications, satellites, listening posts in embassies, and even from submarines shadowing the US fleet.

Illegal Drugs

Illegal drugs are those not prescribed by a doctor or bought in a drugstore, such as heroin (smack, junk, or dope), cocaine, PCP, ecstasy (MDMA), Rohypnol, and methamphetamine. Street-level dealers often disrupt the quality of life in neighborhoods and cause property damage. Local agencies typically investigate narcotics cases by infiltrating the dealer’s organization, conducting buys to determine their product, and arresting suspects.

Long-term undercover operations can create problems for agents, whose role requires them to stay hidden and their fictitious identity must be maintained. They may be tempted by illicit proceeds, or fall into relationships with their targets, leading them to protect rather than prosecute. In addition, they can become co-opted by their targets, or even have children with them on false pretenses.

Full-time undercover officers, especially those on extended assignments, can also experience burnout, which can affect their work performance. In addition, the rigors of long-term undercover assignments can cause them to focus more on “low-hanging fruit” than the top of the criminal chain. A former Met undercover officer, for example, claimed he was often instructed to target crack addicts and spy on ordinary people. In order to combat these problems, the FBI reorganized its Undercover Unit so that CID and HSI staff could share office space together, which allows them to discuss undercover issues more easily.

Corporate Investigations

Corporate investigations by undercover agents are often necessary to get to the bottom of misbehavior within a business, such as asset misuse, time theft and employee fraud. These investigations can also uncover other issues that threaten the integrity of the company, such as unauthorized wiring of funds between accounts, bribery and money laundering. These investigations can be complicated and require a lot of patience, detail, discretion and impartiality.

Many times, the results of these investigations surprise management and reveal hidden problems. For example, a department store that used undercover agents to investigate its inventory found that a number of employees and non-employees were involved in a concerted effort to remove shirts from the warehouse. A number of these individuals were identified, videos were taken and the investigation uncovered a significant amount of evidence.

This type of investigative work may be controversial, particularly when it is used against political and religious groups or community organizations. Infiltrators have been employed by law enforcement agencies for decades to gather information on groups they view as subversive. This practice has been criticized for destroying the morale of groups being investigated, as well as for creating unnecessary fear in the communities where such operations are carried out. Despite these concerns, infiltrators have successfully helped bring about many convictions. Marx (1988:113) lists a variety of stings by police that resulted in arrests and convictions.

Violent Crimes

The FBI’s use of undercover agents to investigate criminal organizations can involve the threat of serious injury or even death, as undercover officers are often the last to know when their cover is blown (Kowalczyk and Sharps, 2017). This danger can be further complicated by the fact that undercover officers may be the only members of an investigation in contact with members of a dangerous organization, increasing the risk that their actions will trigger violence from gang members.

The risk that undercover operations might adversely affect third parties is also a serious concern for the FBI. In one case, a USOU agent was exposed to a toxic substance while posing as an employee of an international money-laundering group. The exposure resulted in a long-term medical condition.

Another concern is the potential for incitement of violent tactics by agents provocateurs operating within protest movements. In these cases, the intent of the agents is to nudge activists towards violence and criminality. The FBI’s use of such a tactic should be subject to greater scrutiny.

Our survey showed that most Coordinators felt it would be helpful to have a single operating division at headquarters that could approve undercover work, regardless of whether the matter falls under CID or CTD. The consolidated approach could help to avoid confusion in the field and make it easier for the FBI to address problems with undercover operations.