The debate over Planned Parenthood has roiled national politics for months. It was a heated topic in the recent GOP presidential debate, it’s a fixture on the campaign trail and congressional leaders are scrambling to sidestep the government shutdown that could result Sept. 30 if rank-and-file Republican insist on stripping Planned Parenthood’s funding.
But the man who catalyzed the commotion has remained mostly a mystery.
David Daleiden, 26, spent two-and-a-half years on his undercover operation to infiltrate the women’s health organization, secretly recording videos that sparked a partisan uproar after he began posting them online in July. A profile in the new issue of TIME explains how he did it.
Daleiden has been an antiabortion activist for a long time. He joined his first group in high school, wrote his thesis at Claremont McKenna on fetal personhood in American jurisprudence and became the director of research for the national antiabortion group Live Action while he was still an undergrad.
The topic of Daleiden’s project has been probed before. The activist and his allies allege that Planned Parenthood profits from selling aborted fetal tissue to medical researchers. (The videos he released do not prove the claim, as the story explains.) The primary origin of the idea was a conversation Daleiden had in 2010 with Texas anti-abortion Mark Crutcher, a longtime foe of Planned Parenthood who sparked a 2000 congressional investigation after releasing an exposé that purported to have unearthed the organization’s practice of “trafficking” in aborted body parts. The claim collapsed under scrutiny.
The mastermind’s methods were complicated. Daleiden hired sympathetic actors to impersonate colleagues at a phony fetal-tissue procurement firm, a cover story he used to insinuate himself into exclusive conferences and private meetings. The company, Biomax Procurement Services, had formal corporate filings, business cards and an extensive website. To prevent a slip-up that would spoil the ruse, he drilled his collaborators on medical jargon using flash cards and vocabulary lists. He is coy about some of his other tricks. “A good magician never reveals his secrets,” he says. “You do want to preserve some of these techniques for future use.”
The project was done on a shoestring. It cost only about $120,000 for 30 months of equipment, travel, costuming, actor’s fees, salary and other expenses. The tab was paid by 15 to 20 donors, whose identities Daleiden declines to reveal. (The nonprofit organization he established, the Center for Medical Progress, has not filed a 990 tax form.)
The timing was lucky. Observers noted the impeccable timing of the project’s release, which came as the presidential campaign was heating up, just before the first GOP debate and on the cusp of an August congressional recess in which the issue would be at the top of town hall agendas. “Pure luck,” Daleiden says. He had wanted to drop the footage earlier, fearing the drama of the presidential campaign would drown out any chances of national publicity. “I had no idea,” Daleiden says, “that within the first 24 hours of releasing it like 10 presidential candidates would comment on it.”
There’s more to come. With around 300 hours of total footage, including a decent chunk Daleiden has yet to fully scour, the Center for Medical Progress will continue to release videos in the coming months. Daleiden also intends to write a comprehensive report on the full scope of the investigation. “That,” he promises, “will be quite a tome.”