Civil Liberties

At Least 40 Federal Agencies Now Conduct Undercover Operations

Proliferating spies


"Undercover work, inherently invasive and sometimes dangerous, was once largely the domain of the F.B.I. and a few other law enforcement agencies at the federal level," Eric Lichtblau and William Arkin note in The New York Times. "But outside public view, changes in policies and tactics over the last decade have resulted in undercover teams run by agencies in virtually every corner of the federal government." At least 40 federal agencies now conduct such operations.

Here are some of the Times writers' examples:

At the Supreme Court, small teams of undercover officers dress as students at large demonstrations outside the courthouse and join the protests to look for suspicious activity, according to officials familiar with the practice.

At the Internal Revenue Service, dozens of undercover agents chase suspected tax evaders worldwide, by posing as tax preparers, accountants drug dealers or yacht buyers and more, court records show.

At the Agriculture Department, more than 100 undercover agents pose as food stamp recipients at thousands of neighborhood stores to spot suspicious vendors and fraud, officials said.

They go on to discuss several operations that went poorly or otherwise attracted controversy. Some of those are well-known, such as the Fast and Furious scandal at the ATF or the FBI agent who posed an an AP reporter. (*) Others are more obscure but no less interesting:

Across the federal government, undercover work has become common enough that undercover agents sometimes find themselves investigating a supposed criminal who turns out to be someone from a different agency, law enforcement officials said. In a few situations, agents have even drawn their weapons on each other before realizing that both worked for the federal government.

"There are all sorts of stories about undercover operations gone bad," Jeff Silk, a longtime undercover agent and supervisor at the Drug Enforcement Administration, said in an interview. "People are always tripping and falling over each other's cases."

Mr. Silk, who retired this year, cited a case that he supervised in which the D.E.A. was wiretapping suspects in a drug ring in Atlanta, only to discover that undercover agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement were trying to infiltrate the same ring.

Read the rest here.

(* If it's OK for an FBI agent to pursue a suspect by posing as a reporter, can a reporter try to land an interview by posing as an FBI agent? Asking for a friend.)