Undercover Agents and Their Role in Criminal Investigations

The FBI uses undercover agents in a broad range of cases. Albanese describes an agent who infiltrated the Bonanno crime family in New York, which resulted in 17 convictions, and the recovery of stolen motorcycles, guns, and vehicles.


When undercover officers pose as members of the press, clergy, community organizations, or public-health officials, their deception can chill speech and association and infringe on personal privacy.


For companies, undercover operatives can uncover issues/problems that otherwise might be unknown. For example, if employees are dealing with illegal drugs or thefts of company property, a secret undercover operation can weed these things out without creating problems for the rest of the workforce. This information could save your business thousands in loss of merchandise, lawsuits and lost productivity.

Undercover agents are trained to do this work and, in most cases, receive regular pay. However, most of the time their income comes from a blind account which is separate from their regular payroll. These funds are surrendered at the end of their assignment. Undercover operators may also have other perks such as free lunches and other goodies for their effort.

There have been some concerns that undercover operations have not received enough objective evaluation in terms of their benefits – in other words, the amount of money saved by police agencies or third parties. One concern is that undercover officers are often less experienced and that their supervision in the field may be insufficient. Another is that undercover officers may violate the privacy of investigation targets or third parties by facilitating and encouraging their commission of crimes as part of a sting operation. Finally, some of the surveyed Coordinators felt that informal field office reviews of undercover operations should be emphasized to help enforce the guidelines of undercover assignments.


Undercover work carries considerable risks for law enforcement officers. In addition to the risk of being unmasked, undercover agents often are placed in dangerous situations without backup. Consequently, it’s important for them to have a prearranged code word with which they can communicate with their backup team and with headquarters if things start going wrong. The operatives should also have their stories carefully synced with the other agents working with them on the case.

Police officers who infiltrate public institutions or criminal subcultures have the added challenge of dealing with public suspicion. This can be particularly difficult when they pose as civil-rights workers, religious or community leaders, and other people in positions of trust. This sort of work can have an insidious effect on the legitimacy of law enforcement, reducing citizens’ confidence that government agencies are serving their interests.

In addition, posing as an ordinary citizen sometimes involves dealing with illicit activities such as money laundering or the sale of stolen property. These investigations require elaborate deceptions involving multiple undercover officers and can be long-term and expensive. A successful sting operation can disrupt a criminal market, but if the undercover officer succumbs to temptation, he or she may lose credibility and become more vulnerable to retaliation (Albanese, 1996:181). Therefore, written policy should include substantive limits on such cases that allow them only in the most high-value investigations.


The undercover work of agents such as Joe Pistone, who spent six years posing as “Donnie Brasco” inside the Bonanno crime family, resulted in more than 100 convictions of Organized Crime figures (Albanese 1996:181). However, the impact on families and other community members must not be underestimated. These agents often relocate multiple times, their relationships are disrupted, and they must find new social networks and institutions to reintegrate into after returning to normal duty.

It is important that the reintegration process include a full range of dimensions including rebuilding old relationships and forming new ones, reactivating existing social institutions such as labor markets, religious communities and political activism, and becoming incorporated into key institutions like health care and the criminal justice system. The reintegration process needs to be coordinated by an agency-wide unit, preferably at the FBI Headquarters level.

Having a dedicated reintegration unit should also address the reintegration needs of agents who have conducted undercover matters. Ideally, this group would be staffed by individuals who are not new to the FBI and who have been trained to provide counseling, referrals, and other services to agents who have completed undercover assignments.

The unit should be able to serve as the field divisions’ on-site experts concerning undercover matters and maintain familiarity with all of the policies and requirements that apply. The unit should also be able to work closely with USOU, FGUSO SS 3.2.A(3). It is also a good idea for the unit to coordinate with other FBI units that have similar reintegration and recovery programs.


Undercover officers must have a wide range of skills to perform their duties effectively. They must be detail-oriented, have a good memory and be comfortable with taking on the identity of another person for long periods of time. They must also be able to blend in with the people around them and play their roles convincingly.

A trained undercover officer will be able to use a variety of investigative methods to gather information and gain the trust of suspects. For example, he may assume the identity of a child to investigate cases of child molestation or an IT professional to investigate cybercrime. The UC may interview the suspect or send emails, text messages and chats to get the information needed for the investigation.

The UC must also be able to write a clear and concise report after the case is completed. In addition, he must be able to prepare a search warrant affidavit and a briefing document. These skills are taught in training sessions that are designed to meet the needs of law enforcement agencies.

The FBI’s National Academy for police leaders and managers is an example of an undercover-training program that serves a number of countries. This academy offers courses in a variety of subjects, including intelligence theory, terrorist mindsets, leadership and management. It is a 10-week intensive program that is open to state, local, county, tribal and military law enforcement and government officials worldwide.