Aug. 2, 2008— -- 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.
In 2001, the British government launched an inquiry into a private intelligence firm with links to the UK's MI6 spy service for infiltrating environmental activist groups to gather information to sell to oil companies, including Royal Dutch/Shell Group and BP, the Times of London reported.
In 2006, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals sued the owners of Ringling Bros. circus and accused them of infiltrating animal rights groups, stealing documents and tapping phones.
But as they have been spied on, so too have activists spied.
One year before PETA accused the circus of allegedly spying, a New Jersey biomedical company accused the animal rights group of infiltrating and secretly videotaping its operations.
"This type of malicious activity by PETA, in which it conspires with individuals to lie about their intentions, to videotape and potentially disrupt medical research, and then to launch vile disinformation campaigns against pharmaceutical research companies, has got to stop," James Lovett, the lawyer for Covance, a biomedical industry leader with some of the world's largest animal-testing labs, told The Associated Press at the time.
The infiltration of activist groups is neither new nor difficult, said Craig Dotlow, a former FBI special agent and spokesman for the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI.
"The FBI used to do this kind of work a lot in the '60s, infiltrating groups like the Weathermen or the Black Panthers. All you really need to find is a good actor," he said. "It is a very unsophisticated but very successful technique. Find someone who can fit into the culture, who can be taught about the group and then make sure they cultivate friendships and work hard. Most of these groups have small budgets, and when they find someone who is dedicated and willing to work for free, they can move up the ranks pretty quickly."
Dotlow added, "It is mostly about education. You need your candidate to know enough about the group so he can talk intelligently about their issues. Then you create a record of involvement, get your name in paper, write an editorial so it appears you have been committed for a long time."
Companies that spy on other companies or each other, Dotlow said, are committing a crime and for that reason many won't do it.