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Definition of Agent Provocateur — 1920

From an article entitled:

Agent Provocateur

Turner’s Weekly Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada 03 Jul 1920, Sat  •  Page 8

It is a good sign that the meaning of the term “agent provocateur” is not well known in English speaking countries. The office copy of Webster contains no reference to it. In the next edition, however, it will probably find a place. For, in the United States at any rate, the agent provocateur is assuming a sinister force in the land. He belongs to the same species as the more commonly known stool-pigeon but moves in a higher plane. The stool-pigeon is the unofficial assistant of the police who, by well-known methods of getting into the good graces of suspected persons does some valuable work in the discovery of crime. The agent provocateur is a government spy who devotes his special attention to the investigation of political and social movements which are suspected of having treasonable designs on the state, or for some reason are disliked or feared by the people who happen to be in power. If he confined himself solely to investigation he would be a legitimate servant of governments, though his employment indicates something not quite right in the state. But the agent provocateur does not limit his work merely to spying. He joins the movement or group which he is supposed to watch, works himself if possible into the confidence of the leaders, and then his real work commences. He starts to provoke trouble. He endeavors to lead his men on to their destruction. He calls meetings and incites his dupes to commit unlawful acts. This type of individual used to be confined to the reactionary countries of Europe, chiefly to Russia. He was the hireling of despotic governments which retained power only by the fear they inspired. Among the people he inspired hatred, contempt, and fear. Recent investigations in the United States have revealed the fact that the agent provocateur is freely used by the Department of Justice in its drives against foreigners and communist associations. Liberals have soundly denounced A. Mitchell Palmer and his methods. Mr. Swinburne Hale, in a recent issue of The Nation advocates that Mr. Palmer should be impeached before the bar of the Senate charged with high crimes and misdemeanors for his administration of the Department of Justice. The methods used are entirely alien to Anglo-Saxon traditions. The employment of such tactics in times like these are calculated to be highly inflammatory and to react grievously on the stability of governments and the loyalty of the subject. We refer to this subject chiefly on account of the tendency of some political lights in this country to follow the example set by the United States, particularly in its attitude towards radical movements. Some of the revelations made at the Winnipeg trial indicated that our government might not be above making use of the services of the agent provocateur. Every admirer of British traditions will sincerely hope that such tactics will be eschewed by cabinet ministers.

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