What Does it Take to Be an Undercover Agent?

Undercover agents are police officers who work undercover in order to gather evidence. Their work often leads to criminal convictions and recovery of stolen property, such as drugs or weapons.

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However, undercover investigations have a significant cost in terms of time invested and risk to officers. They also impose unnecessary impositions on privacy.

How are they chosen?

In some cases, agents go deep undercover to investigate a specific issue. For example, an agent might go undercover as a warehouse employee to gather information on possible internal theft. This may require them to work alongside other warehouse employees and develop close relationships with them. This type of investigation can take several years to yield useful information.

In these instances, the FBI does not need to comply with its own Undercover Guidelines. However, a field office that proposes such an operation must still submit the operation for review to a field division CUORC and a designated Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Criminal Division of DOJ, who must determine whether the proposed undercover investigation “would be an appropriate use of this technique and that the potential benefits of the undercover investigation outweigh any direct costs and risks of other harm.”

The specialized training required of undercover operatives can be very demanding. In addition to classroom studies, they must undergo intensive on-the-street training to develop the necessary skills. For example, someone posing as a car mechanic would have to have calloused hands and an encyclopedic knowledge of cars. Returning to normal life after a period of deep undercover may be difficult for some agents. They might need to make a concerted effort to change their mannerisms, colloquialisms and general attitude, much like combat soldiers returning from overseas deployments.

What are the responsibilities?

Undercover Coordinators, who are based in field divisions, serve as the FBI’s on-site experts concerning undercover matters. They perform many of the same duties as a CUORC and also review proposals for undercover operations, maintaining familiarity with all policies and requirements that apply to such investigations. Despite the importance of their role, the surveyed Coordinators feel that a number of critical factors are not addressed adequately by current policy, procedures, or training.

A major concern involves undercover operations that violate the privacy of investigation targets and third parties. This has arisen in particular from the practice of undercover officers infiltrating civil-rights, religious, and community groups. The resulting relationships can compromise the investigative value of an operation, as well as create problems for third parties (Marx, 1988:160).

In addition to protecting privacy interests, undercover operations must comply with a variety of other requirements. These include: the identification of the objective, scope, and duration of an undercover operation; the extent to which it is a “sensitive circumstance”; procedures designed to minimize involvement in criminal activity that does not directly support the investigation; and a determination that the potential benefits of the undercover technique outweigh any risks of injury or other harm to persons or property. In some instances, the determination whether a matter should be considered sensitive can depend upon decisions made by managers outside of USOU.

What skills do they need?

A career as an undercover agent is a difficult one, with the potential to be dangerous. Those who choose this field need a high level of social skills and an ability to think on their feet when interacting with the people they are investigating. They must be able to answer questions without giving away their identity and be able to take on an entirely different persona in order to blend in.

They also need to be able to remain undetected, which can be difficult when working with the criminal underworld. Undercover officers should work outside their ordinary jurisdiction, which helps with this and can lessen the risk of a suspect recognising them as a police officer. In many cases, undercover officers must work in conjunction with an informant, so they must ensure that their stories are synced up. They are also not allowed to encourage suspects to commit crimes by using the methods of agent provocateur or entrapment.

Deep cover operatives must be able to completely immerse themselves in the culture they are infiltrating, dressing and speaking the part for weeks or months or even years. Their cover story must be sufficiently consistent with their own background so that it can withstand close scrutiny, such as the fact that someone who claims to have spent years as an auto mechanic should have calloused hands and an encyclopedic knowledge of cars.