Surveillance, Undercover, and Task Force Operations
From FM 19-20 Chptr 2 Surveillance, Undercover, And Task Force Operations

As you develop special skills as an investigator you may be called on to work as part of an expert investigative unit. For example, you could work as part of an economic crimes team, specializing in investigations of that particular kind of crime. Or you could work as part of a team developed for a specific operation like a surveillance or undercover operation. You could even be called on to contribute your skills and experience to an investigative task force.

Surveillances and undercover operations are undertaken to learn about a suspect's activities and relationships. In these operations investigators attempt to watch suspects or associate with them without their becoming aware of police interest. For the operations to be successful, the investigators conducting them must be trained and experienced. And sometimes they must have special skills. They may even take on entirely different identities. There may be total, and in some cases dangerous, involvement of the investigators. Because of this, surveillances and undercover operations are used only if there is no other way that will work as well to get needed information.

Like surveillances and undercover operations, task force operations often require the participation of investigators who have special skills or experience. Investigators who have become expert on the subjects of fraud or drugs, for example, may be assigned to a task force needing such expertise. Task forces are usually formed for a specific mission. Task forces are often formed to undertake long-term investigations, those covering a wide geographical area, or those requiring a diversity of investigative skills.



Types of Surveillance

Methods of Surveillance












Team Requirements

Coordination with Other Agencies

Logistical and Administrative Requirements

Disclosures and Briefings


Police surveillance is the systematic observation of persons, places, or things to get information. Surveillant make notes of actions they see performed by subjects under surveillance. If there is more than one surveillant, the notes can be compared for accuracy. Normally, surveillance deals with persons. Places and things are watched if they relate to people or missions. Surveillance can provide information about a person's activities. It can show where persons under surveillance go. Or it can show where criminal activity takes place. It can verify the reliability of a source's information. Surveillance can also be used to protect a very important person (VIP) who needs, but refuses, security measures.

Most surveillance is covert, but overt efforts are sometimes used. An overt surveillance is used when it is useful to let the subject know he or she is being observed. For instance, a nervous subject, made aware that he is being followed, may become anxious and contact his superiors while being observed.


There are two general types of surveillance: mobile and fixed. A mobile surveillance is commonly known as tailing or shadowing. A mobile surveillance can be conducted by foot or vehicle. Or it can be a combination of the two. The choice depends on the subject's movements. A fixed surveillance is known as a stakeout. A stakeout is used when the subject is stationary or when all the important information can be learned at one place. But even for a stakeout, a surveillant may remain mobile, moving from one vantage point to another. He or she may want to move around for closer observation of the area or the subject. If there is more than one exit, a surveillant may have to move about quite a bit just to keep the exits watched.


There are three basic surveillance methods: loose, close, and a combination of the two. A loose surveillance can be used to spot check a subject. And it can be used to compile long-term information on a subject. A loose surveillance is broken if the suspect seems to suspect he is being observed. A close surveillance requires continued alertness on the part of the surveillant. If the subject is lost. a Close surveillance must be continued under an alternate plan. For some cases, a combination of methods works best. Surveillant may need to move from a loose to a close surveillance because of an act or a contact by the subject. Or if a place, such as a known gambling den, is under a close surveillance, a loose surveillance may be run at the same time on some of the persons who frequent the place.


A surveillance must be planned. The plan need not follow a formal outline or even be in writing. However the plan is organized, each surveillant learns every step of the operation. The plan may state general concepts of operations and duties. It may coordinate actions. The actions of two or more surveillant must always be coordinated. It may include alternate courses of action. Planning alternatives lets surveillant adapt smoothly to changing situations.

The plan may include a cover story for each person, communications needs, and equipment to be used. If cover stories are to be used, they must be supported by the attire and equipment of the surveillant. Communications must be coordinated to ensure the success of an operation. Radio contact is needed with vehicle surveillance. And it is often useful for other forms of surveillance. Signals must be arranged to relay messages for a foot surveillance. Telephone contact may also be arranged, especially if there is a need to protect a surveillant's actions.

The plan may include a list of equipment. Equipment lists are tailored to the needs of each operation. They can be basic, including just radios, weapons, and vehicles. Or they can be quite technical, including surveillance, target acquisition, and night observation (STANO) devices.




Subject watched now and then; needed information can be gained by monitoring one facet of subject's activities Subject watched constantly; needed information must be gleaned by monitoring more than one facet of subject's activities Loose and close surveillance running concurrently on separate subjects or in sequence on one subject to gain more information

If surveillants cannot watch from a fixed base, they may need disguised vans or trucks to use as observation posts. These needs must be in the plan. Surveillant may pose as salesmen, junk collectors, telephone repairmen, or even newspaper venders. They may pretend to have any occupation that will not attract undue attention. But to do so, they need the right equipment or supplies.

The plan for a stakeout, for example, would provide for a full recon of the base of operations--whether store, apartment, house, automobile, or truck. The plan would list binoculars, electronic aids, cameras, sound recording devices, or other items that should be on hand. It would set the method for communicating with headquarters. And it would include provisions for relieving the surveillant.


Surveillant are chosen for their skill, experience, and resourcefulness. They must be adept at observation and description. Surveillant must have patience. Otherwise, they will become nervous or discouraged. They should learn as much about the investigation as they can, so they can correctly interpret the actions of the subject. They must know the elements of proof of various crimes to know when the subject has committed an offense warranting apprehension. They should not be too quick to apprehend offenders. They should keep the subject under surveillance until the crime is completed, unless it would cause bodily harm to the victim. Continuing the surveillance, even after all elements of a crime have been committed, also can be rewarding.

Usually, surveillant are of average height and weight and devoid of unique physical features. Sometimes surveillant are chosen for ethnic or language qualifications. The type of surveillance and the area where it will take place determine the choice of surveillant.


If you are selected for a surveillance, get all the background you can on the subject. If he is not known to you, have him pointed out to let you make your own observation. Learn the subject's habits. Learn his contacts, friends, and places he frequents. Try to get a picture or an accurate, detailed description of the subject and his automobile.

If the subject of your surveillance is a place, locate entrances, exits, and vantage points. You may find more surveillant are needed. And check the character of the neighborhood. You will learn where to watch from and how to dress to blend in with the environment.

Make sure your attire is like that worn by others in the area. That way, if the subject sees you, you will not draw attention. On a military base you might wear an appropriate uniform. But avoid wearing unauthorized rank or insignia. It could bring unwanted attention from an innocent third party.

Concern with your appearance should not stop with clothes. Do not wear rings or other jewelry that denote status or club membership. If you usually wear a distinctive ring, replace it with another to hide the mark on your finger. If your coat or pocket bulges, it may reveal that you are carrying a weapon. And be careful your habits do not reveal that you are a law enforcement officer.

If you use a cover story, make sure it fits your dress, speech, and mannerisms. Be resourceful when your cover story must be used. If confronted by the subject, do not offer information. The subject may try to check the information and, perhaps, expose you.

Technical surveillance devices can be highly useful to you. These devices range from tape recorders and hidden microphones to small devices that can be hidden in a subject's clothing to transmit to a receiver. The devices let you know approximately where the subject is at all times. But be sure to get SJA advice before you use any type of electronic surveillance equipment.


Surveillants face two risks that can destroy weeks or months of preparation. One is the risk of being discovered. The other is the risk of losing the subject at a critical time. Even the most experienced investigator can be "burned" or lose a subject. However, certain precautions can help make your surveillance a success.

You should avoid direct eye contact with the subject. This will keep the subject from recalling your face should eye-to-eye contact be needed later. Sometimes looking away from the subject can make him suspicious. When that happens, focus on a point beyond the subject. This gives the impression of eye contact without actually having it.

Sudden or unnatural movements can call attention to you. Many times a subject will test to see if he is being observed. He may quickly change his course or enter a public vehicle or building. You must react quickly, but naturally, to these movements. It may be better to lose sight of a subject for a moment than to arouse his suspicion that he is being followed.

Hotels, theaters, restaurants, elevators, and public transportation can pose special problems for you. Carry enough money (and change) to pay for bus or cab fare, meals, or phone calls. You may have to move close to a subject when he or she enters a hotel or a theater. Enter restaurants behind a subject. Sit where you can see the subject easily. Order a meal which will be ready quickly, or the subject may leave before you are served. Be sure your meal can be eaten easily and hastily.

If a subject uses an elevator, do not press a floor button. Or choose the one for the top floor. That way you can exit behind the subject. If a subject enters a railroad station or bus depot ticket line, try to get close enough to learn his destination. Perhaps you can overhear his conversation with a clerk.

If a subject throws anything away, try to retrieve it. Obtain second sheets from pads the subject has used. But do not pick up an item if doing so could expose you.

If he enters a telephone booth, enter the next booth. Listen to his conversation. The subject may be pretending to call just to see if someone is following. If you enter a booth next to the subject, do not pretend to make a call. Deposit the required coins and dial a number. Then simulate your conversation.

You will have a tendency to believe you have been burned if the subject glances your way several times. You must overcome this. Normally, someone who thinks he is being observed will show his belief by taking actions to harass or lose you.


There are many surveillance techniques. One technique of loose surveillance that has been shown to be quite useful, when you have time and the subject uses a set routine, is progressive surveillance. The subject is watched in one phase of his daily routine or for some length of time on one day. The cutoff point is recorded. The next day the surveillance is picked up at the previous day's cutoff. This process is repeated until the subject's actions have been thoroughly covered and noted. As you gain experience, you will use this and other techniques, and learn how to adapt, combine, and apply them.

The type of surveillance, the degree of risk, and the number of persons assigned to a job determine what technique to use. A one-man surveillance carries danger to the surveillant. The subject, his convoy, decoy, or associates may try to neutralize or physically eliminate the surveillant. It is always wise to have a second person ready to protect and to aid the main surveillant. Certain basic techniques can be used on foot and, with modification, in vehicles. These one-, two-, and three-man techniques allow surveillant to switch from foot surveillance to vehicle surveillance and vice versa. No one on foot walks everywhere. No one with a vehicle rides to every destination. The two types of surveillance must often be combined.

Foot Surveillance

If a one-man foot surveillance must be used, be cautious when you are on the same side of the street as the subject. Stay to the rear and vary your distance from the subject. Set your distance according to physical conditions like size of crowds and number of exits.

If the subject turns a corner, continue across the street, keeping the subject in view. Then, operating from across the street, you can fall in behind or move to the front or side of the subject. Decide which position will give you the best view. When the subject turns a corner, you may want to be abreast of him to see if he makes a contact or enters a building.

For a two-man foot surveillance, use the "AB" technique. The person right behind the subject has the A position. The other surveillant has the B position. When using the AB technique, A follows the subject and B follows A. B may be on the same side of the street as A. Or he may be on the opposite side of the street.

When both A and B are on the same side of the street, and the subject turns a corner to the right, A continues across the street. Then he signals B what action to take. The subject's actions may require B to take the A position, and A to take the B position. Signals between A and B should attract as little attention as possible.

When B is across the street and the subject turns the corner to the right--away from B--B crosses and takes the A position. This step should be prearranged so no signals will be needed. If the subject turns the corner to the left and crosses toward B, B drops back to avoid contact. B then waits for a signal from A before making the next move.

For a three-man foot surveillance, the "ABC" technique offers ease. And it is consistent with reasonable manpower resources. Use this technique for close foot surveillance unless you lack the manpower. The main advantage of the ABC technique is that it lets you cover the subject from two sides. As in the AB technique, A follows the subject and B follows A. C normally stays across the street and just to the rear of the subject.

The ABC technique allows several choices when the subject turns the corner. Assume A and B are behind the subject and C is across the street when the subject turns the corner away from C. A could keep going straight and B would take the A position. C would move across to the B position. A would stay across the street, moving as C had done before.

Another approach would be for C to move into the A position. A would go across and take up the C position, while B keeps his own. What if the subject turns left and crosses the street toward C? C drops back and A continues in the original direction and becomes C. Then B moves into the A position, and C becomes B.

Vehicle Surveillance

The techniques used for foot surveillance are also used for a vehicle surveillance. But applying these techniques to a vehicle surveillance must be done with care. Traffic congestion and traffic laws make actions more difficult. They also increase the risk of discovery. Two or more vehicle surveillant, like two or more foot surveillant, raise the likelihood of success. When possible, have two people in each vehicle. Teams within vehicles increase coverage and allow flexibility.

For all vehicle surveillances, you must familiarize yourself with the locale where you will operate. If you can, do a map study and make a ground recon. If time does not permit this, carry maps in the car. The person in the passenger's seat can navigate for the driver. Have coins for toll roads and bridges to make sure the surveillance is not hindered.

Choose a vehicle for surveillance duty that is mechanically sound. It should suit the locale where it will be used. It should have a radio, especially if two or more vehicles will be used. The radio allows contact between teams. You can also use it to call for help, if help is needed.

Your vehicle should not have official markings. Use a license plate of the county or state where the surveillance will take place. If possible, change your vehicle if the operation is of long duration. Consider using a rental car. Funds for rental cars may be requested in accordance with AR 195-4.

To decrease the risk of detection by the subject, disconnect the dome light of the car. This will keep the light from showing when the door is open. Operate the radio's microphone as covertly as you can. You can wire one of the headlights and the license plate light to be turned on or off separately from inside the vehicle. This changes the traffic pattern seen by the subject. But if traffic conditions are heavy, do not tamper with the headlights. Be sure to clear violations of traffic laws with local law enforcement agencies. Get the advice of the SJA if you need it.

At night it is often hard to be sure you are following the right vehicle. It helps if the subject's car is distinctive. If you get the chance, put a piece of reflectorized tape on the rear of the subject's car.

For a one-vehicle surveillance, you must remain close enough to the subject to see his actions. But you must be far enough away to escape detection. When the subject's car stops, one team member follows on foot. The subject will not expect to be followed by a person on foot if he suspects a vehicle is being used. Meanwhile the driver can look for a parking place where he can watch the suspect's vehicle. When the vehicle is parked, he can sit on the passenger side and appear to be waiting for the driver. This lessens the chance of attracting the subject's attention. He may change to the back seat. Or he may sometimes move the car to another parking place in the same zone of the subject.

If a subject turns a corner, you have two choices. You may keep going straight, cross the intersecting street, and make a U-shaped turn. The subject will not be alarmed by a car turning into the street behind him from a direction opposite to the way he was going before he made his turn. Or you may go straight, cross the intersecting street, and then go around the block. The subject will not be wary of a car coming from the front.

For a two-vehicle surveillance, the technique is similar to the AB foot surveillance. Two cars can tail the subject on the same street. Or one car can be on the same street and the other car travel abreast on a parallel street. The surveillant vehicles can also alternate the A position. This lessens the chance of raising the subject's suspicions.

To do any of these maneuvers, keep radio contact between the surveillant vehicles. The team in the car right behind the subject's vehicle is always the control, giving instructions to the other cars.


An undercover operation is sometimes used to gain police information when other efforts have proved impractical or have failed. An investigator goes undercover when he leaves his official identity and takes on a role to gain needed information. He associates with a person or persons or becomes part of a group believed to have the needed information. He must have the support of information obtained by other means. The nature, habits, interests, and routines of a subject must be studied. If an organization is the target, the purpose of the group and the names of members must be known. The best means to penetrate the group must be found.

Before setting up the operation, the data or result the undercover agent seeks must be specified. The importance of the operation must be clear. And the degree of risk to the investigator must be assessed. Undercover operations are dangerous. They should be used only when absolutely necessary.

Before an undercover operation can begin, it is coordinated with installation, activity, or area headquarters. Investigators do not go undercover in a command without the provost marshal's or US ACIDC commander's knowledge. The advice of the SJA is obtained for heavy undercover operations. If the operation is to be in a civil area, it is coordinated with civil authorities. Coordination with local police is routine in all cases involving the civilian community.

Coordination, however, should make as few people as possible aware of the operation. Only those persons whose consent is needed and those who can distinctly add to the investigation should know about it.


An undercover operation must be carefully planned. Information useful to the undercover person must be assembled. Equipment must be available. A backup system must be planned. A way to communicate must be set up. Normally, the undercover person does not work alone or independent of other investigators. At least a one-man surveillance should be planned to protect the undercover person. Means must be arranged for the undercover person to signal his anticipated moves, contacts, and actions to the surveillant. That way the surveillant can get help, if it is needed, to protect the life of the undercover person.

The plan must include steps for the undercover person to take if he is arrested or detained. And an identity for him must be built. The process of building a false identity, or cover, will vary with the nature of the case. In some cases an adequate false identity may be gained just by changing rank insignia and name. But in other cases an elaborate identity must be planned and built with false documents, records, and references.


Experience has shown the value of undercover work to gain information. But it also has shown that not everyone can adapt to this work. Undercover investigators must be able to adjust their personalities to the roles they play. And they need a highly-developed skill of recall. It is often too risky to take notes on what occurs. Instead, they must commit facts to memory and record them at a later, more opportune, time.

To be selected for undercover assignments, investigators must be well trained and experienced. They must be well versed in the elements of proof. They must have the self--confidence to take them through hard and uncertain situations. They must be able to make quick, sound decisions. They must be resourceful enough to work for extended periods of time without guidance. And if they must pretend to belong to a profession or occupation, they must be skilled in that field. often an investigator must gain a subject's confidence by developing a friendship through a mutual interest like work, sports, or music. Or an undercover person may claim to be an expert in a field in which the suspect has an interest, hoping the suspect will seek him out. The investigator must then, in fact, be very knowledgeable in that area.


If you are selected for an undercover assignment, you must help build the cover story to protect your true identity. Cover stories are seldom, if ever, wholly fictitious. Try to have the story conform to your actual history. But slant it in ways that will gain the confidence of the subject. Set your back-ground in a city with which you are familiar. But do not use a locale that is the home city of the subject. Arrange to have key persons in the cover history support your statements in case the subject calls to check on you.

Study the mannerisms, gestures, and speech of those you will deal with. Look into small details like tastes in food and music. Using a member of the opposite sex to help you look like part of a couple is effective at times.


Your clothing and personal items must fit your role in quality, price, age, fit, and degree of' cleanliness. Your clothing should have laundry marks to go with your story. Belts should have no stretch marks caused by a holster. Wallet, watch, rings, tokens, suitcases, stamps, miscellaneous papers, brands of tobacco, matches, letters, sums of money, and all personal items also should support your role. Documents or identity cards should show wear. The lab can age documents for you. You should be able to explain naturally and logically how each item came into your possession. Pretended handicaps are dangerous. Because they are hard to keep up for any length of time, they may expose your true identity. And carry a weapon only if it fits your background story.

During covert operations you often must be introduced to a subject by a source. Before meeting the subject, establish your cover story with the source. Allow the source to do most of the early talking with the subject. Do not try to engage the subject in conversation that would need much use of your cover story. For example, in drug operations subjects usually are not interested in purchaser's backgrounds. When undercover agents talk a lot about themselves, they only cast doubt in the mind of the subjects. Most dealers tend to believe that buyers will not bring unreliable persons to them.

You must have a simple and practical way to communicate with headquarters. Arrange signals with the person who is keeping you under surveillance. Or have a logical pretext for a call from a public telephone. This is normally the safest means of contact. Use written messages only if you must. Write with great care. If you must write your messages, set up a letter drop. You can also use reliable intermediates as go-betweens.

The fact that an undercover operation has been coordinated with civilian police does not preclude the chance of your being arrested. If you are arrested by civil authorities and you have no other guide, use your best judgment. If you know the name of the official who was briefed on the operation, refuse to make a statement except to that person. If there is any reason why you should not reveal your identity to the local civil police, refuse to make a statement except to a federal officer (US marshal or FBI agent). When brought before a federal officer, disclose your identity and request to speak with the federal officer in charge of the local office.

While undercover you must beware of any actions on your part that could be criticized by the courts as going too far toward facilitating the commission of a crime. The defense of entrapment, if upheld by the court, can negate the results of the entire undercover operation. When acting as an undercover agent you must render as little active assistance to your "associates" as circumstances will permit.


Task forces may team as few as two investigators or as many as several dozen representatives of investigative, audit, inspection, or other agencies. A large task force may be formed to investigate an organized criminal element's large scale diversion of property from a major logistical activity. It may investigate multiple homicides committed by an unknown person over an extended period of time. Or it may be formed to investigate a major drug operation involving the wholesale distribution of narcotics across a large geographical area. On the other hand, a small task force, formed as a management tool to enhance the effective use of resources, may be used to conduct a raid or a surveillance operation. Whatever the case in question, a task force is formed only after a complete anlysis of the benefit of its use is made. Before forming a task force, the extent of the investigation must be evaluated to decide if a task force is needed. Then, if the decision is made to form a task force, the scope and needs of the investigation must be carefully considered. It must be decided:

Careful planning is imperative. The plan must allow room for flexibility, but ensure direction is given to the effort from the start. It must make clear who and what the targets are and what elements of proof must be met. A task force investigation undertaken with minimal coordination can result in a disjointed, confused, and burdensome effort that loses sight of the original goal.


Team members are chosen for their skill and experience as befits the scope of the operation. Their age, family, race, financial status, training, background, skill or experience should support some investigative need or role that must be played. For example, an auditor or someone with a certain computer background may be needed. Or the nature of the operation may require the services of a doctor, a mechanic, a pharmacist, an engineer, or an electrician.

In addition to specific skills, each member must be able to be a "team player." A task force operation, in which many members must work as a cohesive unit, creates stress. This is especially true if the operation is of long duration. The members of the unit must be supportive of one another and possess a strong desire for the team to succeed.

The team chief must have a good understanding of the particular operation's activity. If the team is large and its members have a variety of technical skills, the team chief may be chosen more for his leadership qualities and ability to get the job done than for his technical proficiency. He manages team personnel, coordinating and directing their efforts to avoid wasted time and repetitious efforts. As information is developed, he redirects team assets. The team chief serves as the information clearing house and point of contact for all agents on the team. He is the focal point for coordinating on-the-scene crime lab support. He notifies or coordinates with local, federal, or host-nation law enforcement agencies. He seeks legal guidance from the staff judge advocate, as needed. He also coordinates with the provost marshal for crime scene security personnel or search teams.


Effective coordination made before, or close to the start, of a task force operation may help avoid many problems that could arise. The operation must be coordinated with persons who need to be informed because of the nature of their position. This could be the installation commander or even the mayor of a local community. It must be coordinated with those whose help may be needed in the course of the investigative process. Early coordination helps avoid communication problems later. Lastly, but most obvious, the operation must be coordinated with those whose involvement may be needed from the outset. This includes the legal counsel and other law enforcement agencies. The question of jurisdiction, if it arises, must be dealt with immediately. The source of legal counsel may vary. Guidance usually comes from the supporting local SJA office. But in some cases legal counsel from a higher headquarters, like a major Army command or from the Assistant United States Attorney (AUSA), is sought. (As federal agents, USACIDC investigators can confer directly with the AUSA.) Some rare cases may even require decisions or recommendations by The Judge Advocate General or Army General Counsel.

If the investigation is a multi-agency effort, coordination may be needed to allow members to release their work for inclusion in the report. Auditors, for example, often must have supervisory approval for the release of their workpapers or the result of their audit. But this approval is usually a formality; audit agencies in the federal government are commonly supportive of investigative efforts. The agency responsible for the investigation normally sets the reporting format, distribution, and procedures required.


Transportation, billeting, communication, and special equipment needs can become difficult to handle if the task force is large. It may be best to assign to one person the duties of coordinating logistical support. Most common items are available through the parent organization. But sometimes items must be obtained through supply channels or borrowed from other activities or agencies. In some cases, items must be rented, leased, or purchased. If this occurs, contingency funds must be available to support this requirement. Photographic, video, and audio equipment and tape recorders must have film or tapes to be useful. A video camera is useless for surveillance if the team runs out of video tapes and does not have a ready source. If large quantities of film are to be exposed, arrangements must be made to have the film developed. Someone must be tasked to determine how fast the film must be returned and who is to handle it.

If recording devices are used for team members to dictate their investigative notes and reports, the designated word processing personnel must have the capacity to handle the increased work load. The needs of a task force could place the work of a local word processing section far behind in just a few days of operation. Routine operations cannot be caused to come to a standstill. This may require obtaining administrative support from more than one office.


It is often best to insulate the task force from as many outside inquiries and briefings as possible. The organization responsible for the task force must receive frequent and timely reports from the team chief. But time spent giving many progress rundowns can detract from the effectiveness of the unit. Except for actual requirements, formal written reports should be kept to a minimum. A verbal briefing or a few short paragraphs may be all that is needed.

The best time for the team chief to brief higher headquarters or other outside agency is at the end of the mission. When he does, he may require the presence of one or more team members who have the background to answer technical questions in specialty areas.