Your conspiracy theorist friend isn't looking so paranoid anymore. The New York Times reports on the continuing surge in the US government's use of undercover agents:
"The federal government has significantly expanded undercover operations in recent years, with officers from at least 40 agencies posing as business people, welfare recipients, political protesters and even doctors or ministers to ferret out wrongdoing, records and interviews show."
The Times found that the "military and its investigative agencies have almost as many undercover agents working inside the United States as does the F.B.I."
This expansion infringes on our privacy and sows fear and distrust. At nearly every political demonstration I've been to - not to mention throughout left Twitter - protesters have whispered about potential feds in our midsts. The FBI makes it known that they have undercover agents at protests, and activists are then less likely to share information freely, making it more difficult to organize.
Eric Lichtblau and William Arkin give examples of how government operatives in virtually every agency falsify their identities in attempts to catch crimes ahead of time - which often means participating in them, and luring those who wouldn't otherwise commit crimes to do so:
"At the Supreme Court, small teams of undercover officers dress as students at large demonstrations outside the courthouse and join the protests to look for suspicious activity, according to officials familiar with the practice.
At the Internal Revenue Service, dozens of undercover agents chase suspected tax evaders worldwide, by posing as tax preparers, accountants, drug dealers or yacht buyers and more, court records show.
At the Agriculture Department, more than 100 undercover agents pose as food stamp recipients at thousands of neighborhood stores to spot suspicious vendors and fraud, officials said."
As Michael German, a former FBI undercover agent, says in the article, "Ultimately it is government deceitfulness and participation in criminal activity," which he believes "is only justifiable when it is used to resolve the most serious crimes."
But the government uses undercover agents to start the most serious crimes. Nearly every major terrorist plot on US soil since 9/11 that American officials thwarted (that we know about, anyway) was also initiated by American officials. As David Shipler recounted in 2012:
"The United States has been narrowly saved from lethal terrorist plots in recent years - or so it has seemed. A would-be suicide bomber was intercepted on his way to the Capitol; a scheme to bomb synagogues and shoot Stinger missiles at military aircraft was developed by men in Newburgh, N.Y.; and a fanciful idea to fly explosive-laden model planes into the Pentagon and the Capitol was hatched in Massachusetts.
But all these dramas were facilitated by the F.B.I., whose undercover agents and informers posed as terrorists offering a dummy missile, fake C-4 explosives, a disarmed suicide vest and rudimentary training. Suspects naïvely played their parts until they were arrested."
The FBI typically lures young Muslim men into participating or at least committing to action. When they protest in court, judges side with the government every time:
"In terrorism cases - the area in which the F.B.I. has used undercover stings most aggressively - prosecutors have a perfect record in defeating claims of entrapment."
As Rick Perlstein writes, FBI entrapment is "inventing terrorists." He says,
"they are arrogating to themselves a downright Orwellian power – the power to deploy the might of the State to shape a fundamental narrative about which ideas Americans must be most scared of, and which ones they should not fear much at all, independent of the relative objective dangerousness of the people who hold those ideas."
By creating crimes where there wouldn't be otherwise, the FBI is staging a media-ready narrative about whom we should fear and why. This in turn works to implicitly justify the FBI – look at all of these crimes we prevented: if we hadn't been involved at the earliest stages, these couldn't have been stopped.
And major media outlets support this framing, taking official statements at face value.
By justifying themselves, as the Times report shows, the undercover programs will only expand. Now nearly every agency is using covert operatives, rooting out thought crimes before anything tangible happens. Thus systems of surveillance, security and policing continue to grow to meet threats before they happen - before they're invented.
The fundamental imbalance of this governmental power is rarely addressed. Agents are given broad authority to pose as whoever they want, for any operation. Meanwhile, it's illegal for citizens to impersonate police officers or agents. (The point not being that citizens should necessarily be allowed to, but if they can't, why should cops be allowed to impersonate ordinary citizens? If the government gets to criminalize impersonation, it should have to justify its own use.) Government agents wield this imbalanced power and abuse it with little to no accountability.
As the Times writes,
"Oversight, though, can be minimal. A special committee meant to oversee undercover investigations at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, for instance, did not meet in nearly seven years, according to the Justice Department's inspector general. That inquiry found that more than $127 million worth of cigarettes purchased by the bureau disappeared in a series of undercover investigations that were aimed at tracing the black-market smuggling of cigarettes."
This lack of oversight echoes throughout every expanding governmental agency. Take, for example, the NSA: as its surveillance powers grow exponentially, with secret courts signing off on its powers to collect as much data as it wants, citizens have no avenue for redress.
Before Edward Snowden's disclosures, those who warned of the US government's omniscient spying powers were branded as "paranoid" - now we see they were prescient. Now the epithet is reserved for those who suggest government agents are infiltrating - but we can see they too have ample reason for concern.