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Undercover Operations

A recent New York Times piece cites an increase in undercover work by multiple federal agencies, and some operations are happening across the West. 

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This weekend, the New York Times ran a story on its front page titled “More Federal Agencies Are Using Undercover Operations.” The immediate takeaway from the piece was just as the headline stated—that the federal government had recently “significantly” expanded its use of undercover operations across as many as 40 different agencies.

Co-written by Eric Lichtblau and William M. Arkin, the piece details everything from agents posing as demonstrators outside the Supreme Court to watch for “suspicious activity” to the Internal Revenue Service using secret officers posing as “tax preparers, accountants, drug dealers, or yacht buyers” to hunt down alleged tax evaders. This type of work, according to the piece, even pops up in the Agriculture Department, where “more than 100 undercover agents pose as food stamp recipients at thousands of neighborhood stores to spot suspicious vendors and fraud.” Lichtblau and Arkin write there are pros and cons to this type of work:

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Some agency officials say such operations give them a powerful new tool to gather evidence in ways that standard law enforcement methods do not offer, leading to more prosecutions. But the broadened scope of undercover work, which can target specific individuals or categories of possible suspects, also raises concerns about civil liberties abuses and entrapment of unwitting targets. It has also resulted in hidden problems, with money gone missing, investigations compromised and agents sometimes left largely on their own for months.

In the November issue of 5280, I wrote a piece titled The Feather, which details a recent federal undercover operation run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. For years, Fish and Wildlife agents worked a project code-named Operation Silent Wilderness, going undercover on Native American reservations to buy and sell illegal feathers of birds such as federally protected bald and golden eagles. Though these types of Fish and Wildlife investigations are not particularly new—there are similar examples stretching back into the 1980’s—the undercover work taking place all across the West does raise some of the same questions posed by Lichtblau and Arkin in the Times piece.

For Native Americans, the high-soaring eagle is a sacred animal that represents a connection to their Great Spirit or Creator of all living things. But the bird is also a prominent symbol of the United States; long ago, Congress declared the majestic creature a “symbolic representation of a new nation under a new government in a new world.” The question remains: Whose bird is it?

(For more on Operation Silent Wilderness, read “The Feather”)

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