How to Identify an Agent Provocateur

Time for self-education and collective discussion on police, disruption, tactics, and what it means to enter serious conflict with powerful forces.

Inform yourself. Be alert without being paranoid. Don't be naive. Don't rush into things. Help train others. When suspicious gather facts.

Kasama has run a series of articles on police infiltration: We have documented an important example in Britain, and one FBI infiltrator in Minneapolis (several articles appeared).

Further: In a discussion of the following article, CWM made the important point that not all police infiltrators are agent provocateurs, some are informants. Their profile, activity and goals can be very different. CWM wrote:

"The undercover police are mostly there to gather information and they gravitate towards tasks where there is information."

While it is true, that  gathering information quietly is often the main activity of police agents -- it is also true that provocateur activity happens to two levels:



One, police agents seek to provoke street movements to take actions that they believe will both alienate the public and pull people across the line to facilitate arrests.

Second, police agents (especially since 2001) have carefully worked to enable the government to declare they have uncovered "terrorist sympathizers" - and a special "entrapment" tactic in a growing number of cases has been to encourage often-unknowing youth and activists to engage in "material support" of targeted international groups in ways that allow the police to develop major legal charges.

Third, there is a long history of police themselves throwing charges of "police agent" on innocent activists -- such "bad jacketing" is a way of sowing disunity (and even causing inner-left violence), and of creating a general fearful and paranoid atmosphere that weakens resistance movements.

The charge of police agent should never be made casually or lightly. Gathering facts and the experiences of others are extremely important. A discussion of agent provocateurs is not a tactical argument against all militancy, nor is it an argument that those advocating militant or illegal acts must be secretly cops.

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How to Identify an Agent Provocateur

By Bill Heid


This first appeared on take the square.

As governments around the world, including our own, face more and more popular resistance, we’re witnessing a revival of the use of agent provocateurs. An agent provocateur is the well-used tactic of using undercover military or police to join a dissenting group or protest in order to provoke others in the group to carry out illegal actions and violence. The goal is to discredit the group from the inside. Sometimes the group gets discredited with those outside. Other times the group is enticed into internal divisions and collapses.

People in this conversation

  • I am confused by this part "they focus on ideas over people."

    Shouldn't we focus on ideas and not people? Shouldn't we be cautious <b>not</b> to reduce differences as issues of personalities?

    I have been in groups where people have definitely hit multiple points on this list, but I suspect they were not cops but individuals with unchecked mental health issues, and this creates a complex situation - especially now when thousands will be potentially politicized we have a need to be able to absorb these contradictions and handle them organizationally, in a supportive and productive way.

    And there is more. Some agents <i>can</i> poses high understanding of theoretical matters - and this doesn't excuse them from suspicion.

  • Guest - Brian Gallagher

    Police agents are also the guys who always have a car available and can drive anywhere, anytime.

  • Guest - zerohour

    <blockquote>"If your group has rich relationships and trust, you won’t as easily fall prey to cheap provocateurs."</blockquote>

    The shortcoming of this piece is that it provides no sense how to deal with these issues in ways that maintain security, but also allows an organization to focus on . There is a wealth of direct experience in dealing with provocateurs, some of it documented. Without providing some account of how to address this problem, or even sources for people to look up, the logical conclusion is to circle the wagons and and form a tight-knit, self-enclosed group.

    One resource I've found particularly useful is Brian Glick's book <i>The War at Home</i>:;ie=UTF8&amp;qid=1319412108&amp;sr=1-1

    That said, the questions raised by this piece are especially crucial to grapple with in this moment. The "Occupy" movements are especially vulnerable due to their wide open structures. Unlike other mass movements, this one is "leaderless" where a few individuals are identifiable with certain roles, but people are always free to claim anything they want. New people are always coming in and there is no means of orientation so they don't know the lay of the land.

    There are ways of counter-acting provocateur behavior, and minimize the likelihood of snitch-jacketing, but there's no need to re-invent the wheel. These practices are well-documented. The state has produced new tactics in the last few decades (esp. with the Patriot Act), but they work on the same principles, ignorance and naivety based on inexperience.

    I believe that education in methods of infiltration and disruption and the ways we can counter them, should be a standard part of organizer training, whether one is a revolutionary or not.

  • Brian writes:

    <blockquote>"Police agents are also the guys who always have a car available and can drive anywhere, anytime."</blockquote>

    Or, paradoxically, they also seem to disappear for long unexplained absences, and you never get to meet their family and long-time friends.

    Also, these "tell-tale signs" apply to infiltrators who come in from without.

    but when the state "turns" a previous revolutionary (catching people "over the barrel" embittered emotionally, desperate financially or compromised legally -- and then "flipping them") then none of these things apply. Someone with sophisticated politics and history can become something else (the famous story being <a href="/" rel="nofollow">Roman Manilovsky</a> a respected and leading member of the Bolshevik central committee, and leader of their parliamentary faction).

    Wherever he went (as a duma member and bolshevik organizer) arrests followed. When his world started closing in (i.e. as suspicions were raised) he fled.

  • Guest - SKS

    I fundamental problem to try to develop a systematic method is that any of the wide list of things spoken about here can apply to legitimate activists, and a lot of what has been mentioned doesn't apply to actual snitches/agents etc that have been encountered in the wild.

    In fact, there is no general rule for identifying police action - and this is true of movements who use pig baiting as a way to squash political dissent or to resolve personality clashes by means of pig baiting. There is no difference, for example, between someone who has no notion of the legal consequences of a legitimate held opinion and a provocateur trying to trap people - it is a judgement call, and absent other evidence, it is better to assume a careful posture rather than assume pigwork - and to engage politically rather than "security" wise.

    I know the points raised in the above article are caveated, but lets break them down:

    *Agents will often lack background connections or references. No one in your circles or related groups will know them.

    This might be true, but based on my experience, most infiltrators are not of this description. For example, the ELF snitch was a well known activist. In the Puerto Rican movement, the most damning turncoats/infiltrators were family, friends, spouses, and otherwise connected people. The cop whose entrapment of two activists led to their murder at Cerro Maravilla had joined the movement in high school before he became a cop (not snitch, an actual cop with a badge) - he passed as a well know, visible, infiltrator, and his family was well known, as were his social connections. Some people thought he was ultra-left, nearly none suspected cop, because of how transparent he appeared.

    *Agents try to keep discussions and action unproductive and still. They’ll spend plenty of time debating issues, with little action. They focus on ideas over people.

    As someone already pointed out, this is patently false, and probably ideologically motivated from a perspective that doesn't value debate. And the experience in practice again is the opposite: the Austin snitch was not a big debater, and was a constructive, action oriented, member of his anti-war and ecological groups. By all accounts, everyone was surprised he was the snitch, in part because of this deeply ingrained belief that cops will be disruptive. Well, no. Cops will usually be friendly, approachable, earnest, semi-visible, and try to pass. A good case study is Midwest anti-war comrades, in which the infiltrator actually did the opposite of what this point raised.

    *They tend to create messes in groups and between group members. They leave chaos in their wake.

    Some cops do, but only if that is their job. But most people who do this are just assholes and drama-queens, not cops. And most pigwork today is not geared towards destroying groups, cointelpro style, but monitoring and entrapment to get convictions and criminalize activism.

    *They tend to gravitate toward people in the group who are dissatisfied. Once relationships with those folks grow, the dissatisfaction spreads.

    This is sheer bullshit. Cops go for the leaders, not the rank and file, unless they want to quietly peel off a few people for entrapment - in which case there is no need to spread dissatisfaction. This sounds suspiciously like an argument to squash dissent in a group under the guise of security. Of course, cops might try to sow dissent in order to destroy movements, and did so in COINTELPRO, but they have not done this in decades - they have gone from disruption to containment. If this changes, we will find out, but lets err on the side of Occam's razor.

    *Some agents have been former prisoners who do this work as part of a deal. These folks tend to jump from organization to organization in a relatively short time.

    This is true. One has to be careful with people who were incarcerated previously, or with people involved in non-political illegal activities, like gang banging, drug dealing, etc. One of the most common flipping techniques is to offer reduced sentences or even total freedom based on cooperation. And they don't just do it to politics, this is how they flip drug cartels, mafias, etc.

    *Agents don’t have known sources of income. They might have a job that doesn’t match their spending or claim their money comes from prior savings.

    Also true. Anyone who is sketchy about their personal life, but wants you to break the law with them, is a red flag. Cops can hide this, but are often sloppy.

    *They tend to provide gifts for key figures at first. This helps them build trust with the group.

    Some people are just nice or socially insecure. Putting a pig sticker on someone who is nice and gives gifts is douchebaggery bordering on the self-hating. I cannot recall, of the dozens of cases I have investigated of pigwork.

    *When confronted, they will get defensive and start making their own accusations.

    This is a Loaded Question fallacy. How would you reply to the same question? I am 100% it wouldn't be in a kind way.

    *They act like zealots, but they don’t have the fruit of it. They have passion but don’t truly care.

    What does this even mean? How can you tell someone cares or not? This sounds more like a way to attack people without bubbly personalities than a serious observation on cops. The reality is that different people express their enthusiasm in different ways - and a good cop, like a good actor in a porno flick, can fake enthusiasm with the best of them. The Midwest anti-war activists found this the hard way - the agent who infiltrated them was described by some as a great person who showed so much care and passion that they allowed her to babysit their children.

    I agree both with Mike and Zerohour: the key point is to be aware that police infiltrators exist, that this awareness is actionable by just being aware of this danger.

    Also, the best way to handle police infiltrator is to not do anything illegal. Ever - not even talk about it. This even includes civil disobedience - even if it sounds like a good idea, it might be part of a pig trap. A good example was the Brooklyn Bridge fiasco - although PSL is making lemonade out of that one with their class action suit, which they have won a few BTW.

    Counter-counter-intelligence is an art, not a science, and while scientific approaches are helpful, ultimately each situation will be unique.

    And cops are not perfect themselves - but they also adapt and have different goals at different points of the story.

    Some of the tips given here are actually dangerous, because just as easily a cop can do the opposite of what is being suggested they do, lulling people into complacency - and complacency is a decorated veteran of the police corps...

  • Guest - saoirse

    highly recommend folks read Danny Morrison's novel The Wrong Man. Morrison is the former press secretary for Sinn Fein. Before that he was head of the IRA's internal security whose main job was sussing out infiltrators. There is a long history that is well documented of state repression of the republican mvmt. As the post peace process has exposed leading figures in the republican mvmt had long ago been compromised by the security forces and were working for the British gov't.

  • Guest - Vikranth

    This reminds me of a novel by Joseph Conrad "The Secret Agent". Its about an agent provocateur in an anarchist group.

  • SKS: I greatly appreciate your commentary... and I urge everyone reading this to check out (closely) what SKS added to the discussion.

    These are judgement calls -- and police infiltration is hardly limited to "agent provocateur" activity. There are people acting as informants, and there are agents who are not infiltrators at all (but previous activists who are "flipped.")

    Facts, judgement, and having the "antennae" that come with experience and training -- these can't be capturedin a few bullet points. These things need to be handled seriously, with investigation and care, and without reckless paranoia. And we should be alert to the political reflex that just accuses other political trends and tendencies of being police-inspired, or that casually thinks the worst of political opponents.

    (For example: The RCP has, in an absurd way, accused people in Kasama of being "counterrevolutionary" -- but they have, to their credit, avoided the casual police-baiting which so often characterized the CPUSA, and organizations that emerged from the CPUSA. It has to do, I believe, with some generational learning that happened in the 1960s during Cointelpro "bad jacketing" -- that caused a break with Stalin-era police baiting of opponents.)

    And I think we should continue to drill down and share views on this: the essay that is posted here has gaps and weaknesses, and we should elaboratre here in the thread.

    SKS wrote:

    <blockquote>"<b>*They act like zealots, but they don’t have the fruit of it. They have passion but don’t truly care.</b>

    What does this even mean? How can you tell someone cares or not? This sounds more like a way to attack people without bubbly personalities than a serious observation on cops. The reality is that different people express their enthusiasm in different ways – and a good cop, like a good actor in a porno flick, can fake enthusiasm with the best of them. The Midwest anti-war activists found this the hard way – the agent who infiltrated them was described by some as a great person who showed so much care and passion that they allowed her to babysit their children."</blockquote>

    Let me put in my own thoughts on this: Several infiltrators I have encounters where characterized (when we thought of them later) as "active, but you didn't know why." They seemed eager, active, always there -- but on some level they didn't seem to really "get" the politics. And the passions that drive people to radical activity didn't seem present.

    There are things that new and advanced people say and think (when they first show up in a movement). There are questions that new activists often ask, and ways they look at things... And (in some situations when infiltrators were uncovered) we realized (thinking back over it) that they had seemed strangely flat, and unengaged with that side. And that they had not gotten the interconnections of the politics in ways that newly emerging activists do.

    Now, of course, one of the main themes of this thread is that infiltrators are diverse: While rookie joe cop showing up to inform is not sophisticated enough to fake a leftist line, but there are other infiltrators who are highly sophisticated (and who have penetrated high levels in radical organizations).

    So the point is not to "pin down" all the tell tale signs into one single profile -- there is no single profile! But there are several different profiles.

    Here is how I have approached this: I have a list of about ten or twelve different warning signs that I am alert to.

    Examples: Does this person advocate illegal activity that don't make sense? Does this person's actions seem disconnected with their supposed politics (for example, in treatment of women)? Does this person constantly drill for personal detail and gossip? Does this person want to follow any "money trail"? Does this person constantly mock elementary security precautions, and accuse others of being paranoid? Does this person not allow anyone to meet their family and old friends? Do they have gaps in their story of where their money comes from? Do their special skills, contacts or finances make them a "gift horse" that no one is looking at closely enough? Do they flit from place to place and from person to person, in ways that seem to serve information gathering? Do they respond completely negatively when certain suspicious activities are questioned? Are there pieces of their story or history or their friendship circles that just don't seem to fit? Has there been a major change in mood or demeanor of a previously committed activist -- cynicism, bitterness-without-leaving, a strange nosiness? Do people show the signs of a "secret life"? and so on.

    None of these things (or clusters of these things) are (in themselves) signs of police affiliation. They all could be signs of something else -- including quite innocuous things.

    None of them are proof of anything. But if several of them are true they "raise the antennae" -- raise suspicions, and are grounds for closer scrutiny. There is no single profile (because a paid informant need not be an infiltrator, and an agent provocateur is not the same thing as a quiet sleeper). But five or six of these things happening together form several different possible profiles.

    And in the process of closer scrutiny, when different people in your organization come together to "put together pieces of the puzzle" -- often we find out that different folks had different parts of the larger picture... and something emerges more clearly when we discuss it -- and that "something" can be suspicious activity, or (in some cases) it can just be something else, like a streak of stubborn male chauvinism, or the development of deep but still unarticulated political differences, or an intense hidden personal problem needing help (like developing addiction etc.)

  • Guest - Jack Radey

    Interesting. I had some experience with finks in the movement, and the ones that were being "run" by the FBI were superbly coached. The comment about seeming to be active but not seeming to have it figured out, one thing I noted in every infiltrator who was exposed; they could say the slogans, repeat the line, sound "right on" and militant, but in the case of the guys, feminism was a total mystery to them. Revolution, sure, but seriously, you mean like respect women? Come on, you're kidding, right?

    One thing about infiltrators, whether of the snoop type or the "Hey, lets burn down the bank" type, they have to report in. If someone in your group is suspected, discreetly tail them. If they get into a car with a bunch of guys in suits and hats, bingo, you got 'em.

    David Hilliard of the Black Panthers once said, "There ain't much difference between a pig and a fool", and this makes the provocateurs hard to spot. There are plenty of folks whose righteous anger makes them talk and act like fools. After all, it is so deeply ingrained in our American conciousness, the notion that in the last scene the hero will save the world/girl/poor folks ranch/situation with a right cross to the jaw of the villian (now I guess with four or five rounds of 9mm), that many people have the romantic fantasy that they can do that too, for the revolution, of course. But if someone comes into your group, who nobody knew before, and whose family are not around, and says he knows where he can get detonators/automatic weapons/rocket launchers/plastique, well, he's telling the truth. They got stuff like this back at the station house he works out of.

    The best remedy for both snoops and provocateurs, of course, is stick to your good sense. Non violence is usually our best tactic, and throwing this advantage away over some macho foolishness is just to do the cop's business for them. Secrecy... face it, folks. If they want to know what you are up to, they KNOW. Between electronic surveillance, shotgun microphones, taps, bugs, computer scanning - if more than two of you know, assume the man knows. But unless you are a drama queen, who thinks their brilliant coup is going to surprise and turn the tables on the man and save the world, stick to plans that will work, EVEN IF THE ENEMY KNOWS ABOUT THEM! Here in Eugene a General Assembly was told that the location of the new encampment could not be discussed in the GA, the legal committee was handling that. They did NOT want it discussed in open session, because the cops could be listening. But don't think it wasn't transparent, oh no, See, anyone could come to the legal committee meetings... I'm afraid I giggled about that one.

    With provocateurs, the procedure is the same for pigs and fools - don't do what they suggest, stick to common sense, and if someone is over the top, check them out.

    And don't put down the CPUSA for its claiming some folks were police agents. The Party had long experience with such, and knows what they do and how they do it. This business of the left forgetting all its previous hard learned lessons, and assuming people who put up a good fight must be fools if they aren't hip like us is a bad mistake.

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