FBI Undercover Agent Training

Undercover agents play a critical role in the FBI’s investigation of high priority cases, including those related to public corruption, bribery, narcotics, and fraud. These operations require special skills and can be very dangerous.


In the Mafia case involving Joe Pistone, for example, he risked his life every time he went out on an undercover assignment. But his work led to the conviction of Mafia family leaders.


Undercover operations are an important tool in the fight against drug-related crime. Police use undercover officers to infiltrate drug gangs and purchase drugs, weapons, stolen vehicles and motorcycles. They also serve as a deterrent for students, encouraging them to think twice before engaging in illegal behavior. Proponents of this strategy say that it can help create a safe learning environment for all students.

To be safe, an undercover officer needs a team to support her. This includes a backup team who acts as surveillance units to keep track of the undercover agent’s physical location. In addition, the undercover officer should have a prearranged code word to call for help without risking exposing her identity. The code should be easy to pronounce so that the undercover officer can communicate with her teammates, and they can tell the undercover agent whether she is in danger or simply needs more money for a drug deal.

The undercover officer must remain alert for any changes in the environment that could affect her safety. For example, if a group of people is walking past the undercover officer’s house or car, she should be aware that they are observing her and might attack her if she is not careful. In addition, she must be aware of the potential for radio interference from a nearby business or residential area. Unnecessary radio traffic can reveal her identity to a criminal or even cause her to lose contact with her supervisor during an operation.

Daily Reports

Undercover agents receive extensive training in how to document their observations and conversations in a detailed manner. This helps ensure clarity and evidential sufficiency in court cases. They also participate in realistic role-playing exercises to help them adapt to different situations. In addition, they learn how to handle different scenarios that may arise during their undercover work.

If an undercover operation exceeds six months in duration, or requires confidential expenditures above the Director, Field Operations level, it should be designated as a Group I request. These requests will be reviewed and approved by the Area Undercover Review Committee, which is advisory in nature and should consist of the SAC for the area; an analyst from the Director, Field Operations staff; and the undercover agent. The review process must be documented in the CIMIS system and should include a description of how the operation will impact multiple investigations, and the risks involved.

In one case, ATF undercover agent James Dobyns teamed up with a gangster informant to infiltrate a Hells Angels gang in Los Angeles. The two officers feigned an execution of a Mongol member, placing cow’s brains and bloody clothing on the body. Dobyns then photographed the scene. A lawsuit filed by the gang members against Dobyns, his fellow agents and the federal government claimed that the agents were harmed in the course of their work and that their lives had been disrupted.


Undercover agents need flexibility when planning their undercover operations. They need to have a way to communicate with their supervisors or their partners, especially if they are working under dangerous conditions. Beepers, cellular phones and discreet transmitters are some ways for an agent to communicate with others.

They also need to have the ability to move from locale to locale as needed, which is very common in undercover investigations. They may have to go from an apartment or a hotel to a restaurant or to a motel, for instance.

The FBI uses undercover operations to investigate a wide range of crimes and criminal enterprise activity. Operations like Donnie Brasco/Organized Crime and the Pizza Connection resulted in numerous convictions, as well as a wealth of intelligence on criminal patterns.

Undercover operations also are used to uncover public corruption, such as illegal gambling and drug dealing. In these cases, the determination of whether or not a case should be presented to CUORC can depend on decisions made by FBI managers outside of USOU. According to the Field Guide, in such cases, a national-level leader of the Integrity Government/Civil Rights Section at FBIHQ must be consulted for a determination as to whether or not a case should be presented for CUORC review.

The Undercover Guidelines require that an application for Group I undercover operations include the following: a description of the objective, scope and duration of the operation; how it will be justified in light of sensitive circumstances, including whether or not a risk of violence or physical injury to individuals is present; procedures to minimize the acquisition, retention and dissemination of information that does not relate to the matter being investigated; and a statement that the proposed investigation merits a finding that its benefits outweigh any direct costs or risks of other harm.


Infiltrating mob families, pursuing cybercriminals, and investigating terrorists are part of a typical day for an FBI special agent. They have a wide variety of investigative skills that can be put to use in undercover missions that can last for years.

Working undercover can be a rewarding career choice for those who are willing to endure a great deal of danger and discomfort for the sake of justice. For this reason, specialized training is available for those who are interested in this type of work. Individuals who want to become undercover agents should be inquisitive enough to ask the right questions, persistent enough to continue assignments that can last for years, and have excellent communication skills.

Aside from the obvious risks, undercover operations are also a big time commitment. One famous example was Joe Pistone, who spent six years infiltrating the Bonnano crime family, an operation that inspired the movie Donnie Brasco. Another undercover specialist credited with long-term investigations is Scott B. Hamer, who told Vice he once spent 18 months infiltrating a biker gang as well as five years working undercover to investigate drug-dealing gangs.

In order to avoid legal issues during undercover investigations, it is important that CDCs carefully plan each undercover operation, especially those with sensitive circumstances. To this end, OIG surveyed Coordinators and found that 55 percent responded that informal field office reviews should be conducted to ensure that CDCs are adequately consulting with Division Counsel (see Undercover Guidelines SS IV.B.2.m at B-45).