An agent provocateur (plural: agents provocateurs) is a person assigned to provoke unrest, violence, debate, or argument by or within a group while acting as a member of the group but covertly representing the interests of another. In general, agents provocateurs seek to secretly disrupt a group's activities from within the group.
An agent provocateur is often a police officer whose duty is to make sure suspected individual(s) carry out a crime to guarantee their punishment; or who suggests the commission of a crime to another, in hopes they will go along with the suggestion, so they may be convicted of the crime the provocateur suggested. The phrase comes from the French language, where it means, roughly, "inciting agent".
The activities of agents provocateurs are typically called sting operations. Agents provocateurs are typically used to investigate consensual or "victimless" crimes; since each participant in such a crime is a willing participant, only a police spy posing as a fellow participant in criminal activity is likely to be able to uncover such a crime.
Agents provocateurs are also used in the investigation of United States the COINTELPRO program of the Federal Bureau of Investigation had FBI agents posing as political radicals in order to disrupt the activities of political groups the U.S. government found unacceptably radical. The activities of agents provocateurs against political dissidents in Imperial Russia was one of the grievances that led to the Russian Revolution.
The activities of agents provocateurs pose a number of ethical and legal issues. Within common law jurisdictions, the law of entrapment seeks to discern whether the provocateur's target intended to commit the crime he participated in with the provocateur, or whether the suggestion to commit the crime began with the provocateur. It is also debatable whether the institutionalized deception that resort to agents provocateurs entails by definition does more harm to the social order than the various consensual offenses typically investigated by provocateurs.