An agent provocateur (plural: agents provocateurs, French language, "inciting agent") is a person who secretly disrupts a group's activities from within the group. Agents provocateur are typically representing the interests of another group, or are agents who are directly assigned to provoke unrest, violence, debate, or argument by or within a group while acting as a member of the group.
An agent provocateur is often a police officer whose duty is to make sure suspected individual(s) carry out a crime to guarantee their punishment; or who suggests the commission of a crime to another, in hopes they will go along with the suggestion, so they may be convicted of the crime the provocateur suggested.
The activities of agents provocateurs are typically called sting operations. Agents provocateurs are typically used to investigate consensual or victimless crimes; since each participant in such crimes are willing participants, only a police spy posing as a fellow participant in criminal activity is likely to be able to uncover such a crime.
Agents provocateurs are also used against political opponents. Here, it has been documented that provocateurs deliberately carry out or seek to incite counter-productive and/or ineffective acts, in order to foster public disdain for the group and provide a pretext for aggression; and to worsen the punishments its members are liable for. Terrorists sometimes act as agents provocateurs when they seek to provoke government repression that they hope will alienate their potential constituency from the government in question, and thus increase support for themselves (as the opponents of the government in question). In this sense, provocation may be combined with endorsement terrorism.
Within the United States the COINTELPRO program of the Federal Bureau of Investigation had FBI agents posing as political radicals in order to disrupt the activities of radical political groups in the U.S., such as the Black Panthers, Ku Klux Klan, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The activities of agents provocateurs against dissidents in Imperial Russia was one of the grievances that led to the Russian Revolution of 1917.
The activities of agents provocateurs pose a number of ethical and legal issues. Within common law jurisdictions, the law of entrapment seeks to discern whether the provocateur's target intended to commit the crime he participated in with the provocateur, or whether the suggestion to commit the crime began with the provocateur. It is also debatable whether the institutionalized deception that the use of agents provocateurs implies is in fact more harmful to the social order than the various consensual offenses typically investigated by provocateurs.