In Episode 109, “Against Thy Neighbor,” Abe masquerades as a prosecutor for the British cause when accusations of conspiracy rock Setauket. His secret strategy: to garner sympathy for the accused Patriots and throw the case in order to strike a blow against the British. It’s an audacious plan that requires playing both sides against one another. Relying on his skill as a student of the law to incite action and entrap the enemy, Abe uses his status to gain a position that allows him to stealthily function as an agitator from within — the very essence of what an agent provocateur does.
The term “agent provocateur” is derived from French and translates to “inciting agent.” It literally means “someone who provokes.” In espionage circles, an undercover agent may be forced to incite another person into committing a rash act that will implicate them in a crime or expose their true nature and larger plans. The agent provocateur enters the group or organization as a member and gains the trust of the group and its leaders, pretending sympathy with their aims in order to incite them to incriminating actions. Once the agent has garnered collective confidence, it is then that he can strike a damaging blow.
Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel The Secret Agent provides a fictional account of a spy-turned-provocateur, and is well ahead of its time in its depiction of espionage and terrorism scenarios. However, historically, agent provocateurs have been employed by police and other government entities to discredit or harm another group. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, agent provocateurs in labor organizations incited mob violence that brought police action against workers’ groups. Incidents sprang up across Europe in labor camps, as well as throughout the United States.
Nowhere was this more prevalent than during the social movements of the 1960s. Many peaceful protests and demonstrations were infiltrated by agents looking to provoke groups to commit acts that would undermine their political protests and demonstrations. These planted agents worked under the auspices of the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) and deployed agents who disguised themselves as political radicals to disrupt the activities of groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the American Indian Movement. While these tactics produced chaos and setbacks, they could not quell the rising tide of people seeking fairness and equality in those movements.
An agent provocateur is a spy who is unafraid to use subversive tactics to achieve their goal. Despite putting themselves at risk, it is the larger goal that often drives these determined agents, and they must be willing to blur the lines of loyalty to bring a target down.Read More