The recent allegation that the NRA hired a spy to infiltrate several anti-gun advocacy groups in an effort to learn their secrets and strategies opens a rare window into clandestine efforts by corporations and other organizations to target the activists that oppose them.
For more than a decade, Mary McFate worked for gun-control groups, volunteering her time to organize protests, develop policy, lobby politicians and serve on their executive boards.
McFate was, according to Angus McQuilken, a board member at the anti-gun group Freedom States Alliance on which she also served, "a model of passionate advocacy for our cause."
But according to a report in Mother Jones magazine, McFate was really Mary Lou Sapone, a "research consultant" hired by the National Rifle Association to spy on the very groups who believed she was there to help.
According to Mother Jones, Sapone, operating under her maiden name "McFate," began appearing at anti-gun protests in the 1990s soon after she had been outed in another case of activist espionage. In 1990 it was revealed that she infiltrated an animal-rights group on behalf of a surgical supply company.
Sapone served on the boards of the Freedom States Alliance and Ceasefire Pennsylvania, and twice ran for a board position at the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, ABC News confirmed.
The magazine closely connects her to the now-defunct private security firm Beckett Brown International, which earned a reputation for hiring former U.S. intelligence agents and which has been linked to several cases of spying on activist groups, including Greenpeace.
In a 2003 deposition, BBI's former president Tim Ward testified that he hired Sapone to work on behalf of the National Rifle Association, according to Mother Jones.
"We used informants that we would send to public rallies that these people were holding, public demonstrations. These informants developed relationships where they could pick up a phone and call in to find out where the next event was, where it was going to be held… They are usually very eager to have somebody come and tote banners and scream and shout," Mother Jones quotes Ward as saying.
When reached by ABC News, Ward said he knew Mary Sapone but not a Mary McFate, and would not comment further.
Sapone did not return calls placed by ABC News. Neighbors in Sarasota, Fla., said Sapone, who went by her maiden name, McFate, in the community, was on vacation in Belize and often spoke about working for the NRA.
The NRA did not return calls placed by ABCNews.com.
The groups she allegedly infiltrated were left reeling, wondering how they were duped for so long by someone with whom they closely worked.
"This reinforces what we have long known, that the gun lobby will go to any lengths, no matter how unethical, to protect the profits of the gun industry in this country, even at the expense of the over 30,000 Americans who lose their lives to gun violence each year," said McQuilken, whose organization kicked "McFate" off their board soon after learning her true identity.
"This person was a very good imposter. She knew all the right things to say," he said.
The gun-control groups are far from the first activist organizations to be infiltrated by corporations or other organizations, often larger and more powerful, than the activists.