How to Become an Undercover FBI Agent

Many high priority investigations – including those targeting public corruption involving bribery, gambling, narcotics and white collar crimes – require undercover work. FBI undercover operations can provide valuable intelligence and evidence to prosecute criminals.

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In some cases, undercover agents may infiltrate civil rights, religious and community groups to collect information for counterintelligence purposes. This raises privacy concerns.

Job Description

Undercover agents work for a number of law enforcement agencies, including local police departments, the DEA and FBI. They often work as a part of an investigative team to infiltrate criminal networks, and then gather information and evidence to prosecute those involved in illegal activities. These investigations can be short, a few weeks, or in rare cases last for years.

Working undercover requires more than a uniform and some clout. Officers must assume roles that require a certain level of social standing and ability, such as being a drug dealer or fence for stolen goods, a professional athlete, a criminal associate or an operative in human trafficking operations.

UC officers must also maintain contact with their handlers, who monitor their progress and ensure they do not violate their cover. This can involve phone calls or brief meetings in public where a suspect is likely to be present. They can also provide information from a distance such as a photograph of a suspected gang member or a surveillance video.

UC officers frequently testify or present evidence at trials and hearings for those they have been investigating. This usually occurs at a remote location so their identities are not revealed to others who could use that knowledge against them. Other duties include reviewing all complete DEA integrity/misconduct investigations, shooting investigations, accidents with government vehicles and property loss or damage negligence/liability reports.

Education and Training Requirements

The education and training requirements for an Undercover agent vary, depending on the type of work that is needed. In general, a high school diploma is the minimum requirement to become an Undercover agent, but a bachelor’s degree is preferred in order to pursue a specialization. Some postsecondary schools offer bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer forensics, a subject that is becoming increasingly important for law enforcement.

It is also essential that an Undercover agent has experience in the field in order to be successful. The work can be stressful and dangerous, so it is vital that the candidate be able to perform well under pressure and in difficult situations. The person must be able to win the confidence of their criminal suspect and extract information from them without revealing that they are an undercover officer.

An individual who works as an undercover agent is required to undergo thorough vetting and training before being allowed to work on any assignment. This includes a selection procedure that involves supervisors thoroughly familiarizing themselves with the candidate’s occupation commitment, character and performance. The nature of the candidate’s family life is also taken into account, since undercover work can put strain on personal relationships.

The New York police department provides undercover agents with extensive training to prepare them for their assignments. This includes role playing, imputation of knowledge about drugs and on-the-job training.

Job Outlook

The FBI employs undercover agents to conduct a variety of investigations, including terrorist activity, human trafficking, illegal immigration, and other crimes that threaten national security. Investigators may work in the field or at a domestic or overseas office, depending on the case.

The Bureau also uses undercover agents to investigate a wide range of criminal activity, including white collar crime, drug trafficking, firearms violations, and child pornography. Undercover operations can result in a number of criminal charges, such as narcotics and firearms offenses, as well as damage to third parties, such as theft of property or injury to individuals involved in undercover activities.

A USOU Unit Chief reported that the FBI has made progress since our survey in establishing and standardizing review procedures for undercover matters. He recommended that the Bureau assess whether to “formalize [the Undercover Coordinator] position so that you do have to go through them and do have to consult with them.”

The USOU Unit Chief noted that some CDCs feel that they are not being properly consulted with Division Counsel when conducting undercover operations. He suggested that the Inspector General (IG) evaluate whether Division Counsels and CDCs need additional training on undercover issues, as well as how to better consult with each other when planning covert activities. The IG should also consider creating a new role at the GS-14 supervisory level for Undercover Coordinators, if necessary to make the position a full-time position.

Work Environment

Undercover agents are placed in jobs under assumed names and cover identities in order to gather information about white collar crime, public corruption, terrorism and crimes involving controlled substances. These are high priority areas of investigation, and undercover techniques are essential to their success.

During an undercover operation, the agent poses as a regular employee to gather intelligence on dishonesty, physical security conditions, employee malpractice, supervision and employee/employer relations. The agent also observes and interacts with other employees to learn as much about the business as possible.

When the undercover agent’s cover is blown, it can be very difficult to break out of the situation. For this reason, most undercover agents have a backup team that acts as surveillance and to make emergency forced entry if necessary. Backup teams may consist of fellow agents, FBI supervisors or local law enforcement officers.

An undercover agent must not participate in otherwise illegal activities without the prior written approval of a designated Assistant Director. Oral approval may be given in exceptional circumstances when a significant investigative opportunity is in jeopardy of being lost by the time it takes to prepare a written authorization. Any such approval must be documented and forwarded promptly to FBIHQ. The FBI retains a file on each undercover operation and prepares brief summaries of the results and any ultimate disposition by the approving official.