Coverpersons and Operators in Undercover Work: The Reappearance of False Identities

Article excerpt


Girodo, M., Deck, T. & Morrison, M. (2002). Dissociative-type identity disturbances in undercover agents: Socio-cognitive factors behind false-identity appearances and reenactments. Social Behavior and Personality, 30, 631-644.

Many police officers and government agents engage in what is commonly known as undercover investigation. Officers engaged in such work routinely infiltrate a particular group and instantiate themselves into a criminal community in order to gain intelligence and capture those engaged in illegal behaviour. The officer or agent must gain the trust of the community members before they are accepted into the group and allowed access to other community members and information regarding their activities. Obviously, these undercover agents must not only conceal their true identity but also construct a new persona or identity that they will adopt while engaging in their investigations. Simply put, undercover agents must pretend to be someone other than who they are.

In some instances, the invented identity may persist in contexts outside of the actual investigation; that is, in nonwork related contexts. The following examples are drawn from the introduction to the study reviewed here (i.e., Girodo, Deck and Morrison, 2002). The re-experience of an undercover persona is often reported as being outside the control of the agent, as in the case of a British Secret Service agent who reported the reappearance of his alternative personality outside of his conscious awareness. These experiences may be accompanied by confusion and memory distortion, illustrated by the difficulty a secret agent for the Israeli Mossad had remembering his real name and place of origin.

The severity of post-undercover personality disturbances may be exacerbated in the case of long-term undercover work in which officers are required to role play a false persona for prolonged periods of time. In addition to the strain associated with being someone other than oneself for an extended time period, some officers report feelings of depersonalization during which they feel disengaged from their selves and experience themselves as "unreal." In some cases, this disconnection from self may lead to criminal behaviour. Girodo et al. (2002) cite three such examples.

First, they relate the case of an FBI agent who was experiencing unexplainable reappearances of his undercover personality outside of his work context. During one such episode, the agent was arrested for shoplifting. In another example, an undercover agent for the IRS was arrested for breach of confidentiality. During questioning, the agent displayed a change in posture, accent and demeanour as he shifted to an alternative personality that he had developed years earlier during unrelated undercover work.

As one last exemplar, Girodo et al. (2002) discuss another FBI agent with fifteen years experience in undercover work who was arrested for attempted murder after creating a hostage situation. During the trial, an audiotaped conversation between the FBI agent's alternative personality and police during the hostage situation was admitted as evidence for his defence. It was argued that he was suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder, which is defined as "the presence of two or more distinct identities or personality states that recurrently take control of a person's behavior" (Girodo et al. 2002). Therefore, the basis of the defence was that the agent himself was not in control of his behaviour rather, it was the alternative personality that committed the crime.

There are several personality traits that seem to make it more likely that an undercover agent will experience personality disturbances. These include introversion, neuroticism, a poorly defined self-image and a lack of behavioural inhibition. Interestingly, the psychological profiles of those at risk for identity disturbances are very similar to those of psychiatric out-patients. …


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