An agent provocateur (French for "inciting agent") is a person who commits or who acts to entice another person to commit an illegal or rash act or falsely implicate them in partaking in an illegal act, so as to ruin the reputation or entice legal action against the target or a group they belong to or are perceived to belong to. They may target any group, such as a peaceful protest or demonstration, a union, a political party or a company.
In jurisdictions in which conspiracy is a serious crime in itself, it can be sufficient for the agent provocateur to entrap the target into discussing and planning an illegal act. It is not necessary for the illegal act to be carried out or even prepared.
Prevention of infiltration by agents provocateurs is part of the duty of demonstration marshals, also called stewards, deployed by organizers of large or controversial assemblies.
History and etymology
While the practice is worldwide anciently, modern undercover operations were scaled up in France by Eugène François Vidocq in the early 19th century, and already included use of unlawful tactics against opponents. Later in the same century the police targets included union activists who came to fear plain-clothed policemen (agent de police in French). Hence, the French agent provocateur spread, just as is, to English and German. In accordance with French grammar, the plural form of the term is agents provocateurs.
An agent provocateur may be a police officer or a secret agent of police who encourages suspects to carry out a crime under conditions where evidence can be obtained; or who suggests the commission of a crime to another, in hopes they will go along with the suggestion and be convicted of the crime.
A political organization or government may use agents provocateurs against political opponents. The provocateurs try to incite the opponent to do counter-productive or ineffective acts to foster public disdain or provide a pretext for aggression against the opponent.
Historically, labor spies, hired to infiltrate, monitor, disrupt, or subvert union activities, have used agent provocateur tactics.
Agent provocateur activities raise ethical and legal issues. In common law jurisdictions, the legal concept of entrapment may apply if the main impetus for the crime was the provocateur.
The activities of agents provocateurs against revolutionaries in Imperial Russia were notorious. Jacob Zhitomirsky, Yevno Azef, Roman Malinovsky, and Dmitry Bogrov, all members of Okhrana, were notable provocateurs.
In the "Trust Operation" (1921–1926), the Soviet State Political Directorate (OGPU) set up a fake anti-Bolshevik underground organization, "Monarchist Union of Central Russia". The main success of this operation was luring Boris Savinkov and Sidney Reilly into the Soviet Union, where they were arrested and executed.
In the United States, the COINTELPRO program of the Federal Bureau of Investigation included FBI agents posing as political activists to disrupt the activities of political groups in the U.S., such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the American Indian Movement, and the Ku Klux Klan.
New York City police officers were accused of acting as agents provocateurs during protests against the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City.
Denver police officers were also alleged to have used undercover detectives to instigate violence against police during the 2008 Democratic National Convention.
Also in New York City, an undercover motorcycle police officer was convicted of and sentenced to two years in prison in 2015 for second-degree assault, coercion, riot and criminal mischief after an incident at a motorcycle rally. In 2013, the officer, Wojciech Braszczok, was investigating motorcyclists by blending in with a crowd during the rally; at some point another motorcyclist was hit by a motorist, Alexian Lien. Braszczok is later seen on video breaking a window to Lien's car and assaulting him with others in the crowd. His actions were investigated by the NYPD and he ended up facing charges along with other members of the rally. Braszczok was eventually convicted on some of the charges laid, and received two years in prison.
In February 1817, after the Prince Regent was attacked, the British government employed agents provocateurs to obtain evidence against the agitators.
Sir John Retcliffe was an agent provocateur for the Prussian secret police.
Francesco Cossiga, former head of secret services and Head of state of Italy, advised the 2008 minister in charge of the police, on how to deal with the protests from teachers and students:
He should do what I did when I was Minister of the Interior. [...] infiltrate the movement with agents provocateurs (sic) inclined to do anything [...] And after that, with the momentum gained from acquired popular consent, [...] beat them for blood and beat for blood also those teachers that incite them. Especially the teachers. Not the elderly, of course, but the girl teachers, yes.
Another example occurred in France in 2010 where police disguised as members of the CGT (a leftist trade union) interacted with people during a demonstration.
On August 20, 2007, during meetings of the Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America in Montebello, three police officers were revealed among the protesters by Dave Coles, president of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, and alleged to be provocateurs. The police posing as protestors wore masks and all black clothes; one was notably armed with a large rock. They were asked to leave by protest organizers.
After the three officers had been revealed, their fellow officers in riot gear handcuffed and removed them. The evidence that revealed these three men as "police provocateurs" was initially circumstantial-they were imposing in stature, similarly dressed, and wearing police boots. According to veteran activist Harsha Walia, it was other participants in the black bloc who identified and exposed the undercover police.
After the protest, the police force initially denied, then later admitted that three of their officers disguised themselves as demonstrators; they then denied that the officers were provoking the crowd and instigating violence. The police released a news release in French where they stated "At no time did the police of the Sûreté du Québec act as instigators or commit criminal acts" and "At all times, they responded within their mandate to keep order and security."
During the 2010 G20 Toronto summit, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) arrested five people, two of whom were members of the Toronto Police Service. City and provincial police, including the TPS, went on to arrest 900 people in the largest mass arrest in Canadian history. The RCMP watchdog commission saw no indication that RCMP undercover agents or event monitors acted inappropriately.
The internet has been a perfect tool for information warfare, with many internet trolls acting as agents provocateurs by disseminating black propaganda. Such tactics are used to further the interests of countries, corporations, and political movements.
An agent provocateur can tell the target that the proposed crime involves elements which bring it under the jurisdiction of a specific country. For example, that some of the drugs involved in a drug-smuggling plan will eventually go to the United States, even if that is not the immediate destination. This brings the conspiracy within the jurisdiction of US courts, even if the target never joins any plan to smuggle drugs to the US directly.
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"Maroni dovrebbe fare quel che feci io quand'ero ministro dell'Interno. In primo luogo, lasciare perdere gli studenti dei licei, perché pensi a cosa succederebbe se un ragazzino di dodici anni rimanesse ucciso o gravemente ferito. Gli universitari invece lasciarli fare. Ritirare le forze di polizia dalle strade e dalle università, infiltrare il movimento con agenti provocatori pronti a tutto, e lasciare che per una decina di giorni i manifestanti devastino i negozi, diano fuoco alle macchine e mettano a ferro e fuoco le città. Dopo di che, forti del consenso popolare, il suono delle sirene delle ambulanze dovrà sovrastare quello delle auto di polizia e carabinieri. Nel senso che le forze dell'ordine dovrebbero massacrare i manifestanti senza pietà e mandarli tutti in ospedale. Non arrestarli, che tanto poi i magistrati li rimetterebbero subito in libertà, ma picchiarli a sangue e picchiare a sangue anche quei docenti che li fomentano. Soprattutto i docenti. Non quelli anziani, certo, ma le maestre ragazzine sì."
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