How to Identify an #Agent #Provocateur

Feb 17th, 2011 | 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.


12 comments on “How to Identify an #Agent #Provocateur

  1. Anonymous says:

    For this to be the lead story in the new GP Facebook there is nothing that could disparage the Gray Panthers more. The photo is sheer nonsense, agents within a group look exactly like the ordinary members of the group, they are neither nieve or unconnected. The article is ripe with broad speculation and provocative statements without context. Gray Panthers must be careful not to fall into the trap of supporting unjustified generalizations.

  2. It became clear in the 1960s and 1970s that one function of agents provocateurs of any sort was to stir claims and counterclaims of “agent” and/or “paranoid” among activists. By no means is the new guy who wants “more action, less talk” (or the longtime fellow who wants “more talk before we act”) necessarily an agent; on the other hand, s/he might be. What is clear is that unity in any movement is important, but that if one’s means fits one’s ideals, any provocateur’s capacities to provoke will be well limited.

  3. Patrick Sullivan says:

    The best Agent Provocateurs are not those who cause division, they are those who bring unity, then direct that unity towards empty designs. In the case of Occupy, the best way to identify agent provocateurs is to see who is leading the process of activism within it’s ranks, watching closely to see what working strategies are employed and what is actually being accomplished.

    The lesser A.P.’s are the ones which divide activists energies – Thereby drawing attention to themselves. The master A.P.’s are those who unite activist energies, then direct them into activities which dissipate effectiveness.

    I remember well the strategies of the elite:


    Please free your minds and make your own decisions.

  4. mike says:

    There are many photos to be found online which show cops disguised as protestors vandalizing things. We know they are cops because we have photos of the same people in uniform. During the anti-globalization movement a decade ago, this was commonly done to justify a violent police crackdown on a demonstration.

    During the ’80s the FBI actively infiltrated the environmental movement, groups who were opposed to our policy in Central America, and late in the ’80s militia groups. The tactics used included harassment, sowing discord withing groups, and inciting to violence.

    This is nothing new. It never stopped. You can bet they are more high tech and more sophisticated now than in the past.

    Be careful. When the new guy is pressing for more “direct action” that’s a bad sign.

  5. John says:

    It wasn’t only the FBI in the 1960s and its surely not the only ones now. The CIA was heavily involved in spying on the peace movement and those who reported it. They planted two agents within the liberal publication Ramparts. The CIA was acting illegally – they weren’t supposed to act domestically, but they ran Operation CHAOS against Vietnam War protestors.

  6. I constantly remind folks in the U.S. imperial colony of Puerto Rico, whenever they´re in popular protests, to be especially careful of police since it is open knowledge that there are reserve military personnel, that are members of the colonial police. It is also open knowledge that Department of Veterans Affairs has publicly admitted, that there are more cases of undiagnosed PTSD, than the official number of known cases, of veterans which have returned from the imperialist wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. No need to mention here, the astronomical figures of brain injuries, and suicides among Iraq/Afghanistan vets. Thusly, if you have embedded military personnel amongst the riot police and other elements, you have the perfect formula for disaster, since these folks are intoxicated with the sickly mentality of the global war on terror, and therefore see a terrorist in every bona fide peaceful protester. We are thusly becoming a de facto police state, where militarily-minded cops are hellbent on taking their frustrations on protesters, injected themselves already with the toxic mentality of the good guys vs. bad guys, like in the old western movies.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Shady characteristics with criminal history as well during g20 we had a guy float through all the groups and talk with everyone all the while reporting back to the kawps, everyone thought he was legit cause he did coke talked large and was of just not enough money for it to be believable, you know he was a get out o’ jail free card kinda guy

  8. This is missing the MAIN thing. Agent Provocateurs provoke! Ergo: Provocateur. They create senseless undirected violence so your whole group can be arrested. Violence may happen, usually started by the police. But beware of people trying to wind everybody up to commit violence. That is your Agent Provocateur.

    • Anonymous says:

      Or just someone who is angry and fed up. Just because you are confrontational and aggressive does not mean you are an AP. I support violent protest and I’m not a cop.

    • Anonymous says:

      Fine. So not all government agents spying or disrupting a movement are technically “agents provacature”.

    • Billi says:

      Exactly. The agent provocateur provokes violence. We don’t need violence. We want a human society, not a pathological society. We want to transform society into meaningful relationship. If your pro violence & not a cop, you might as well join the cops and get paid because you’re doing the work for the cops. The cops want violence. Violence means more cops, more weapons, more surveillance. If we fight back, then they can shoot. Ghandi & MLK laid it out: no violence is the only way to transform the social order.

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