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How to Identify an Agent Provocateur

By Bill Heid

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.

The most recent and clumsy attempt was the Egyptian government’s use of plain-clothes police officers to incite violence amid the largely peaceful anti-Mubarak protests. They tried to resemble the genuine protesters at first, but then the Mubarak agents showed their true colors. They rode horses and camels, carrying weapons and throwing fire bombs. Even the international media wasn’t fooled. For the first time, mainstream media started using the language of agent provocateurs.

In decades past in the U.S., the FBI was exposed for using agent provocateurs to pose as members of right wing groups and the Black Panthers. This was the infamous COINTELPRO program that operated from the 1950s into the 1970s. It was thought to have been shut down in the early 1970s, but another version of it came to light during the Reagan years.

Italian police were caught using agent provocateurs during the G8 financial meeting in 2001, and the British police did the same during the 2009 G20 meetings in London. In 2007, a Canadian police force in Quebec first denied and then admitted it used disguised officers during a protest of a Security and Prosperity Partnership meeting. The police denied that the disguised officers were inciting violence, though they were carrying rocks.

New York City police officers were accused of using agent provocateurs during the 2004 Republican National Convention, and the Denver police were discovered using undercover detectives during the 2008 Democratic National Convention. In this case, police officers ended up using riot-control chemicals against their own officers. In recent years, the FBI has used a growing number of agent provocateurs to infiltrate Muslim communities in the U.S., the most notable being exposed agent Craig Monteith in Orange County, California. He said he had been paid between $2500 and $11,000 a month to help radicalize Muslims.

As the paranoia common to governments grows, the question arises: will your group or church or political action committee be targeted with agent provocateurs at some point? Why not? The targets have been quite various, with government certainly not always focused on so-called radicals. At the same time, governments’ definitions of what groups are risky can change quickly and silently. It certainly wouldn’t be advertized. Many groups haven’t discovered their agent provocateurs until years after their activity.

Would you be able to spot an agent provocateur? They try to blend in and make friends. They appear to share your interests.

Drawing from several sources, experienced observers have suggested some tips for identifying such agents. They’re not foolproof, but they’re a start.

  • Agents will often lack background connections or references. No one in your circles or related groups will know them.
  • 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.
  • They tend to create messes in groups and between group members. They leave chaos in their wake.
  • They tend to gravitate toward people in the group who are dissatisfied. Once relationships with those folks grow, the dissatisfaction spreads.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • They tend to provide gifts for key figures at first. This helps them build trust with the group.
  • When confronted, they will get defensive and start making their own accusations.
  • They act like zealots, but they don’t have the fruit of it. They have passion but don’t truly care.

Of course, good but immature people can do all these things. Discernment involves sound judgment calls. Protection from agent provocateurs increases as your group matures. If your group has rich relationships and trust, you won’t as easily fall prey to cheap provocateurs.

* Originally published on OffTheGridNews

About author
A #globalrevolution enthusiast. Twitter: @AliceKhatib
14 total comments on this postSubmit yours
  1. This article is useless and potentially dangerous. You’ve basically created a list of things that make people disruptive assholes, and that’s it.

    The idea that we can identify undercover cops is fallacious and naive. Not to mention a waste of time. If you are engaged in above ground organizing then you will be infiltrated. The best approach then, is to deal with problem behaviors while refraining from labeling people as “agent provocateurs” because quite frankly you’re going to have a lot of people who are just crazy, disruptive jerks who are not cops.

    What’s even more dangerous about this whole witch hunt for agent provocateurs is that it encourages people, especially pacifists, to thwart the efforts of more militant comrades, and even to snitch on them.

    These kinds of articles breed unnecessary paranoia and it would be much more helpful for you to post articles about dealing with disruptive behavior, respecting a diversity of tactics, and security culture.

  2. This does not work. What you have described occurs in all group situations.

    You will never truely know an agent provocateur except the obvious one’s which have attached themselves to the movement over the last few weeks.

    The real provocateurs could be your best friend or someone elses best friend. You will never know. Just look at how the Special branch infiltrated the IRA. Their best provocateurs where the guys at the very top, and stopping short of naming names, it has been rumoured that their highest profile provocateur is yet to be ousted.

    It is easy for police and intelligence services to infiltrate a movement, they only need a little dirt on a subject to flip him/her. Who here can really say they have no skeletons in their closet?

  3. I have been contributing to Occupy since day 1. I bring tarps, clothing . water. food. Cash. I walk each week. I totally talk to people trying to understand who is there and why. I actually gravitate to those with different passions, opinion. I initiate conversation as I want to not just march but know the person standing next to me. I don’t always see the same faces. I often walk alone as my friends won’t go., I ask questions that may make me look suspicous? I feel the purpose is to communicate as much as possible. I want to understand that what I’m doing and who stands next to me I need the passion of communicating. I could look suspicous. If a ‘plant is walking next to me I suppose since I know what my convictions are and certainly I am not violent, I will be true to myself and Occupy. Maybe with facts the ‘plant’ will come around to my thinking or at least get it.

  4. Although you have to read to the end to see it, something that should be stated in the opening of such a post, he does admit that “good but immature people can do all these things” – a good point as I myself have admittedly fallen into this in the past and try to help others avoid doing the same. When you are very passionate and nothing seems to be changing, or worse seems to be going downhill, some people will put aside their maturity to match the oppositions level, especially in dirt-flinging, hopefully quickly learning their mistake and returning to more productive behaviors before more damage is done to the group. We must allow for people to make mistakes and grow – policing ourselves in our behavior in some way is helpful in this and always recommended…

  5. So, basically what you’re saying is that anyone who causes the slightest bit of drama in any of these movements is secretly working for an organization that’s whole goal is set to discredit the rest of you? Quite frankly the entire Occupy movement is doing just fine themselves discrediting any goals they have yet to even come to agreements on.

  6. The prime examples this year are from Washington, D.C., and Oakland, California.

    The riot at U.S. Air and Space Museum was incited by Mike Stack and Patrick Howley. They moved to the front of the crowd, then Stack pushed a guard creating a distraction, which allowed Howley to enter the main display area without going through the metal detectors.

    USASM had to be shut down. Stack screaming at the guards also caused several dozen protesters to be pepper sprayed. Number of specific crimes — about a half-dozen each.

    But they’re righties so the corrupt cops aren’t arresting them. No warrants out.

    In Oakland the righties arrived late at night 11 PM. They carried nunchukus to break windows and incendiaries to start fires.

    Their black masks and black clothing copied the costumes used by fake-anarchists in Italy. Genoa 2001 and Rome 2011, for example.

    40 buildings were all or part burned down.

    Both examples had Black officers targeted. Okland was things being thrown at the Black officers.

  7. Agent provocateurs were present at the Rodney King and anti-war (Bush’s Iraq) protests in San Francisco.

  8. During the Vietnam war, the Quakers were against the war because they are PACIFISTS. The FBI had undercover agents infiltrate the Quakers to keep an eye on them. My point is, that no matter how peaceful you are, if you oppose a government policy you will be viewed as a threat and the government might take various actions against you and your group.

  9. It’s interesting to consider the question, “What harm can an agent provocateur do to such a movement – IF you keep it all-inclusive?”

    In such rare instances where the REL threat alwyas iompllicit in NUMBERS is violece, what better outcome to keep the threat viable than having the police, when ytjey feel they MUST gas someone, gas their OWN provocateurs? (because they’re the only ones getting violent)

    If our numbers are BIG enough (by not excluding out of just such paranoia) the prov.’s are even better insured to be the ones gassed and arrested, as they’ll be harder for cops to ID.

    There were recent “occupiers” tweeting such exclusiveness (in advocating Tim’s streaming be disallowed,) citing defence from provocateurs.
    I say forgetaboutit and they can’t hurt us.

    Numbers are needed and ACCURATE -ie real time, streaming- coverage is actually essential to getting those numbers up. So indeed even are provocateurs! They help more than they hurt.


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