Dissociative-Type Identity Distrubances in Undercover Agents: Socio-Cognitive Factors Behind False-Identity Appearances and Reenactments

Article excerpt

The uncontrolled dissociative-type reappearance of a fabricated false identity in undercover agents was investigated in 48 federal police officers undergoing 3 weeks of undercover field exercises in two separate classes. Half of the officers received passive and covert identity dissimulation training as coverpersons and half received training in active identity dissimulation methods as operators. One class received hypnotic induction procedures to visualize an alter self and the second class was exposed to false-identity constructions under imagination conditions. Participants reported on the appearance of their false identity outside operational contexts and on the reenactment of a false identity in other police officers. Self-reported identity reappearances were more likely to be found among persons scoring higher on the Dissociative Experiences Scale and by persons who altered their physical appearance. Despite expectations to the contrary operators were not more likely than coverpersons to report uncontrolled reappearances of their false identity. Observer-reported false identity reenactments were correlated with self-reports of identity reappearances outside operational contexts. Coverpersons who were more frequently observed to reenact their undercover persona also reported the strongest tendency to reexperience their false-identity. The visualization of an undercover self through imagination exercises and the tendency to use these methods for dissimulations in the field was associated with greater false identity manifestations as reported by observers. Cognitive factors and possibly strain from status inconsistencies appear to underlie these identity disturbances.

Undercover work involves an investigative method where a government agent secretly looks for criminal activity or threats to national security by insinuating himself/herself into the lives of people intent on wrongdoing. The agent has to pretend to be someone else by falsifying his/her true identity and acting out a part designed to create trust and acceptance by the targeted persons. These dissimulations can be accompanied by noteworthy occupational maladjustment, psychiatric disturbances, and unusual personality changes.

In a study of occupational maladjustment in 271 federal undercover agents Girodo (1991 a), found links between agent wrongdoing and certain predisposing personality traits. A poorly disciplined Self-Image (Cattell, Eber, & Tatsuoaka, 1989) and high Disinhibition scores (Zuckerman, 1979) were related to misconduct and corruption. Elsewhere, Girodo (199 lb) used the Health Opinion Survey (HOS) (McMillan, 1957) to identify who might be in need of psychiatric assistance, and the SCL-90 (Derogatis, Lipman, & Covi, 1973) to pinpoint the type and severity of psychiatric symptoms these experienced. The combined traits of introversion and neuroticism (Eysenck & Eysenck, 1975) explained the source of psychological distress and ill-health. With undercover agents of another federal organization, Girodo (1991c) found 8% of preoperational, 26% of active operational, and 17% of postoperational agents to be "at risk" of psychological disturbance. The severity and the shape of the symptomatic profiles formed by the "at risk" agents were almost identical to those of psychiatric out-patients.

Personality disturbances have also been described. Clifton James, who was enlisted by the British Secret Service in World War II to impersonate General Montgomery, wrote of the mental strain in rendering a false identity to the real world and of the uncontrolled re-appearance of the Monty personality after he sought to abandon the impersonation (James, 1954). Eisenberg, Dan, and Landau (1978) described "role confusion" and alterations in identity among secret agents of the Israeli Mossad. For example, the agent Eli Cohen, who assumed the role of an Arab merchant in infiltrating a group in Syria, seemingly became unsure of his true name and origins after a few years in the role. …