Undercover Agents Communicate Discreetly

Undercover agents need to be able to communicate with their law enforcement teammates. They should have a means of discreet communication such as beepers or cellular phones.


Under-cover investigations can be highly intrusive. In the past the FBI has infiltrated civil-rights, religious and community groups, among others.

In certain emergency situations, the SAC may orally approve an undercover operation if he determines that without immediate initiation, extension, or renewal of the operation, life or personal safety would be jeopardized.

The Role

Undercover agents are a critical component of the FBI’s ability to gather intelligence on criminal patterns and to disrupt crime. Many of the FBI’s high priority cases – bribery, gambling, narcotics, theft of technology and other white collar crimes – require undercover investigation. Undercover investigators also can be an important part of the investigative effort when the suspect is a public official or when there is suspected corruption in government agencies and offices.

As with all investigative methods, the use of undercover agents can be both effective and controversial. On one hand, undercover investigations can yield a substantial number of convictions. For example, Marx (1988) cites some police sting operations that resulted in 680 convictions and $5.7 million in forfeitures.

On the other hand, undercover investigations can infringe on the privacy interests of investigation targets and third parties. When an undercover agent cultivates a romantic relationship with a target for the purpose of generating information about that target, for instance, it may violate the law (Brown v. Nationsbank, 188 F.3d 579 (5th Cir. 1999)).

In addition, undercover investigations can be expensive and time consuming. Often, the undercover officer must spend considerable time and resources in order to develop the necessary trusting relationships to conduct the operation. This may lead to an increased risk of his or her exposure and a shorter duration for the undercover operation.

The Lifestyle

Undercover agents have to give up the security and comforts of their normal law enforcement lives to infiltrate dangerous criminal organizations and subcultures. They often start at the bottom of an organization and work their way up, which can take months or even years. The more infiltrated they become, the greater their risk of being exposed and their potential to get hurt or killed.

As a result, many undercover agents develop a close relationship with their targets and begin to sympathize with them. This has led to allegations of entrapment, which is why it’s important for undercover agents to separate their feelings and emotions from the people they investigate.

However, as former DEA agent and Cipher Brief contributor Mike Vigil points out, this isn’t something that can be easily done. If an undercover agent starts to participate in the illegal activities they’re investigating, it will ruin their credibility as a witness and the case they’re building. It would also be incredibly difficult to keep their identity secret without compromising the investigation.

Additionally, when agents are undercover, they must often perform a variety of other duties in addition to the tasks of their primary job. This can include analyzing physical evidence, processing drug test results, and preparing investigative reports. The amount of paperwork required on an undercover operation can be overwhelming for some agents.

The Risks

Undercover work is a risky business. In addition to the obvious risk of being discovered, officers must live with the constant threat of physical injury and even death. They also give up all the protections of a law enforcement officer, often going in without any backup and only limited means of communication and assistance.

Under cover police work is dangerous, but the risks can be minimized by careful planning and thorough preparation. It is important to have a clear chain of command for any undercover operation. The street supervisor (sometimes referred to as the case agent) is responsible for ongoing decisions about the case: directing surveillance, communicating with the undercover officer, authorizing changes to the plan and ensuring that the undercover operation safely proceeds toward its objective. It is important to make sure that radio discipline is rigorously enforced to limit unnecessary chatter and stray comments that can jeopardize the operation.

The use of undercover officers poses special concerns about legitimacy. It can create a dilemma for members of the public who must decide whether to trust an undercover agent based on his or her claimed credentials. In addition, there are concerns about the impact of undercover operations on third parties when officers cultivate romantic relationships with investigation targets or engage in other activities not related to a criminal investigation (Marx, 1988). The benefits of undercover investigations must be carefully evaluated against their costs in terms of time invested, officer safety and manpower and their impact on organized crime operations.

The Rewards

The satisfaction of being able to bring criminals to justice and the feeling that the work is meaningful have been cited as rewards for some undercover officers. The ability to perform these operations without being seen by the public has also been a draw.

The types of assignments may vary, but most undercover work involves infiltrating a drug distribution operation and building cases against the dealers. In narcotics, undercover officers often get their feet wet by posing as addicts or making drive-up purchases from dealers on street corners.

The benefits of undercover work and the adjustment problems experienced by officers after they complete their assignment have not been subjected to systematic evaluation. This type of evaluation would allow the costs (time invested, risk to the officer and financial cost) to be weighed against the benefits.