Michael Beer's Review of Steve Chase's Book on Agent Provocateurs

How Agent Provocateurs Harm Our Movements by Steve Chase, Published by the International Center on Nonviolence Conflict, 2021

Steve Chase has produced a 45 page book on government supported agent provocateurs. He begins by providing a short snapshot of examples of agent provocateurs from Guatemala, Thailand, Syria, Sudan, Poland, Britain, Canada, United States, and Tibet.  He then shares a deeply disturbing story of US government sabotage and use of agent provocateurs in weakening the US Black Liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s.  This story has been made possible because of a daring citizen initiative to raid an FBI office for its documents that were then the basis for a legislative branch investigation that exposed much information about the COINTELPRO program supporting provocateurs.  He then explains important research from Omar Wasow, Sharon Erickson, and Erica Chenoweth that debunk the myth that “diversity of tactics” is a successful campaign strategy. Diversity of Tactics is a term which encourages the simultaneous or parallel use of nonviolent and violent tactics, particularly in street protests. Chase also criticizes nonviolent campaigners who fail to confront those who seek to use violence to accomplish goals on strategic or principled grounds.

He concludes with a short chapter on Responding Effectively, suggesting ways to deal with agent provocateurs.  Some of these ideas include prompting more evidence-based social science research, deploying tactics that are less susceptible to agent provocateur incitement, provide trainings in nonviolent discipline, and staying focused on clear goals among other recommendations.

Some additional recommendations that Nonviolence International has given over the years includes:

  • a) Don’t always expose agent provocateurs, because they may send replacements who you don’t know.  “The agent provocateur that you know is better than the one you don’t know.”
  • b) Killing or harming agents does not deter governments from sending in replacements. Very often, these are people with criminal records or poor and have limited choices but to cooperate with the authorities.
  • c) Folks are often sent in pairs or teams for security reasons. So if you uncover one, look to see if they are working alone.
  • d) Develop a policy on agent provocateurs and informants. Some groups open up meetings welcoming all to attend and participate as long as they follow the NV guidelines. For example, "if anyone at this meeting is being paid to be here by government, media, or outside groups, please disclose that publicly now.”
  • e) Feeding misinformation or omitting information to agent provocateurs or informants is an option.
  • f) Gandhi operated in complete transparency making it very difficult for agent provocateurs to cause problems or have an impact.
  • g) Do reference checks. Even asking newcomers for additional information can be enough to chase away infilitrators. Simple questions. Where are you from? How did you find out about us? Why are you motivated to join this action/group?
  • h) Infiltrators can be flipped. At the very least, they add 1 more person to your action/crowd.
  • i) Never let an agent provocateur seize the microphone or the bullhorn.
  • j) Maskless actions and daytime actions reduce the risk of sabotage.

His book reveals the need for more research based on government documents and whistleblowers with stories to tell on social movement sabotage. This sabotage goes well beyond what we typically think of as agent provocateurs including informers, kidnappers, quiet intimidators, and assassins. This book also shows the need for a more comprehensive look at agent provocateurs that are also sponsored by corporations and non-state political actors.

This book’s most important contribution is to challenge those advocating for diversity of tactics and violent revolutionary flanks.

Chase concludes with his finest observation that “I find it painfully telling that no agent provocateur has even been documented encouraging a movement to adopt a disciplined civil resistance strategy.


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