Big boost in US undercover domestic spying

NEW YORK - The United States has expanded undercover domestic spying at a significant rate, according to a media report.
Citing records and interviews, The New York Times said at least 40 federal agencies, from the CIA to the internal Revenue Service, the Agriculture Department, are spying on American citizens, disguised as anything from preachers to doctors to students. - At the Supreme Court, the newspaper said small teams of undercover officers dress as students at large demonstrations outside the courthouse and join the protests to look for suspicious activity.
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, the Times said, citing court records.
At the Agriculture Department, more than 100 undercover agents pose as food stamp recipients at thousands of neighbourhood stores to spot suspicious vendors and fraud, officials said.
Undercover work, inherently invasive and sometimes dangerous, was once largely the domain of the F.B.I. and a few other law enforcement agencies at the federal level, the newspaper pointed out.
But outside public view, changes in policies and tactics over the last decade have resulted in undercover teams run by agencies in virtually every corner of the federal govt, it said.
Citing some agency officials, the report said 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.
“Done right, undercover work can be a very effective law enforcement method, but it carries serious risks and should only be undertaken with proper training, supervision and oversight,” Michael German, a former F.B.I. undercover agent who is a fellow at New York University’s law school, was quoted as saying in the  report. “Ultimately it is government deceitfulness and participation in criminal activity, which is only justifiable when it is used to resolve the most serious crimes.”
The report said the expanded undercover operations have resulted from heightened concern about domestic terrorism since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But many operations are not linked to terrorism. Instead, they reflect a more aggressive approach to growing criminal activities like identity theft, online solicitation and human trafficking, or a push from Congress to crack down on more traditional crimes.
At convenience stores, for example, undercover agents, sometimes using actual minors as decoys, look for illegal alcohol and cigarette sales, records show. At the Education Department, undercover agents of the Office of Inspector General infiltrate federally funded education programs looking for financial fraud. Medicare investigators sometimes pose as patients to gather evidence against health care providers. Officers at the Small Business Administration, NASA and the Smithsonian do undercover work as well, records show. Part of the appeal of undercover operations, some officials say, is that they can be an efficient way to make a case.
“We’re getting the information directly from the bad guys — what more could you want?” Thomas Hunker, a former police chief in Bal Harbour, Florida., whose department worked with federal customs and drug agents on hundreds of undercover money-laundering investigations in recent years, was quoted as saying.
Hunker said sending federal and local agents undercover to meet with suspected money launderers “is a more direct approach than getting a tip and going out and doing all the legwork and going into a court mode.” “We don’t have to go back and interview witnesses and do search warrants and surveillance and all that,” he added. But the undercover work also led federal auditors to criticize his department for loose record-keeping and financial lapses, and Hunker was fired last year amid concerns about the operations.