By Alex Altman
September 24, 2015

Monica McLemore was at the bar of the Hyatt Regency Baltimore when the stranger sidled up. He introduced himself as a UCLA graduate student and complimented a remark that McLemore, a scientist and abortion nurse, had just made at a private gathering of the National Abortion Federation. The stranger offered to buy McLemore a glass of wine and spent a few minutes asking questions about methods of collecting tissue from aborted fetuses. He said he wanted it for his research on transgenic mice. The clean-cut young man struck McLemore as unusually knowledgeable, able to cite arcane studies in fusty scientific journals. “He was very nice, overly kind,” McLemore recalls of the April encounter. “He really knew how to build empathy.”

Three months later, McLemore learned that the stranger wasn’t a graduate student. Other abortion providers knew him as Robert, the manager of a biomedical company that turned out not to exist. The young man’s real name is David Daleiden. He is an antiabortion activist, and for 2½ years, he was an undercover agent in one of the most elaborate exploits in recent political history.

In an interview with TIME, Daleiden, 26, described his plot to sneak inside Planned Parenthood by posing as a fetal-tissue-procurement executive. He formed a front company called Biomax Procurement Services, with papers on file at the California secretary of state’s office. He acquired fake IDs, launched an extensive website and proffered business cards adorned with the logo of a bubbling beaker. He slipped into exclusive conferences for abortion providers, hobnobbed with high-ranking officials and discussed medical procedures with doctors. He trained actors to play colleagues, drilling them with flash cards and vocabulary lists lest an errant phrase spoil the ruse. “I hate to say it, but you gotta respect the method,” McLemore says. “It was full-on infiltration.”

The intricate operation produced a series of undercover videos that put Planned Parenthood on the defensive and pushed abortion back into the political spotlight. Only two months after Daleiden began publishing his stealth footage of clinic visits and private meetings with executives, the tapes are on the verge of shutting down the U.S. government. A group of GOP lawmakers have vowed to oppose a spending bill Congress must pass by Sept. 30 if funding for Planned Parenthood isn’t stripped from the federal budget. The Republican-controlled House has already passed a separate bill to defund the organization for one year, while Carly Fiorina’s diatribe about the videos during the GOP presidential debate on Sept. 16 helped vault her toward the top of the field. “This is about the character of our nation,” she said.

The sting focused on a murky corner of the medical world. Daleiden’s clandestine footage revealed that the women’s-health organization, which is one of the nation’s largest providers of abortions, supplies aborted fetal tissue to medical researchers. Fetal-tissue study has been a part of medical research since the 1930s; last year the National Institutes of Health spent $76 million on such research to study treatments for diseases like Parkinson’s. The recordings don’t prove Daleiden’s claim that Planned Parenthood profits from the sale of fetal body parts. But the sight of top officials appearing to debate the costs of organs over wine exposed a market many Americans found unsettling if not repugnant.

“I can’t think that there’s ever been a moment like this in the whole pro-life movement,” says Charmaine Yoest, CEO of the influential antiabortion group Americans United for Life. “It’s unique in the level of intensity, focus and interest.” The controversy won’t subside anytime soon. Daleiden has been rationing his cache of what he describes as about 300 hours of undercover footage, releasing videos on YouTube and his website at a rate of about one per week. He estimates he has enough material to last until the end of the year. “The fires,” he tells TIME, “will still be burning weeks and months into the future.”

The success of the ruse crystallized the no-rules nature of political combat in the social-media era. Antiabortion groups and like-minded politicians have spent millions of dollars over many years trying to take down Planned Parenthood, a pillar of the progressive movement and the recipient of more than $500 million in public funds each year. In the midst of this ancient and bitter culture war, the biggest blow in recent memory is being struck by an anonymous spy with a hidden camera.

The plot against Planned Parenthood had modest beginnings. The center of the operation, dubbed the Human Capital Project, was the kitchen table of Daleiden’s apartment in Orange County, California. The entire tab for 30 months of research, travel, equipment and salaries came to just $120,000, Daleiden says. (He won’t identify the 15 to 20 donors who footed the bill.) It was more solo mission than vast right-wing conspiracy: Daleiden is both founder and mastermind of the Center for Medical Progress (CMP), the nonprofit organization that released the tapes. “David studied this stuff night and day, 24/7,” says Troy Newman, president of the antiabortion group Operation Rescue and one of three CMP board members. “He lived this.”

Born in Northern California, Daleiden is the child of what he calls a “crisis pregnancy,” conceived during his parents’ junior year of college. His preoccupation with abortion took root in junior high school. After debating it one day with a classmate, he went home and Googled images of fetal remains. “I thought this was the sort of grave injustice against a certain class of human beings that people will look back on 50 to 100 years from now and think, My gosh, why did we let this happen?” Daleiden says. “I wanted to be one of the people who shouted from the rooftops that this was wrong.”

Daleiden joined his first antiabortion group in high school. By the time he arrived on the campus of Claremont McKenna, “he was already very much involved in the pro-life cause,” says Kyle Kinneberg, a college friend who once joined him on a mission to adjacent Pomona College to confront a Planned Parenthood staffer’s presentation. Racing through college in three years, Daleiden wrote his senior thesis on fetal personhood in American jurisprudence. “He was quiet, composed, articulate and businesslike,” recalls government professor Ralph Rossum, his thesis adviser.

Daleiden also started a campus chapter of the antiabortion group Live Action, which is known for surreptitious videos that claim to catch Planned Parenthood breaking the law. While still in college, he became the group’s director of research. “The power of undercover video is it can speak to everyone,” says Live Action founder Lila Rose, who has known Daleiden since high school. “It exposes the truth in a way that doesn’t rely on media outlets to report it.” But Live Action’s recordings were often bogus. After a while, Daleiden recalls, he began looking for a long-term project that “wouldn’t just be political street theater.”

The seeds of the Human Capital scheme were planted in a 2010 phone conversation with Texas-based antiabortion activist Mark Crutcher, who has been using guerrilla tactics against Planned Parenthood for years. (One of Crutcher’s projects, known as Spies for Life, enlists activists to infiltrate abortion clinics and report back on their findings.) In 2000, Crutcher spearheaded an investigation that purported to show that Planned Parenthood trafficked in fetal body parts. The claim sparked media coverage and a congressional investigation but collapsed when a key witness admitted he had been paid for his testimony.

Daleiden was floored by the prospect of a fetal-tissue market. “I remember hanging up the phone, and I was crying,” he says. “I had nightmares about it for a week.” In 2013 he left Live Action to zero in on the issue. “He had the idea of becoming one of them–a spy, if you will,” says Newman. “We had to start building relationships inside the abortion cartel.”

The first coup was a simple screenshot. It captured the website of a biomedical company that, according to Daleiden, invited clients to choose from a menu of body parts and gestational ages. From there, he began networking with Planned Parenthood staff and affiliates, slowly climbing its organizational rungs as he pieced together information about a practice Daleiden says even top executives know little about.

As a mole, Daleiden had certain merits. He was an unknown face with a fluency in medical jargon and what he calls a “photographic memory.” But his most valuable trait may have been his interest in his opponents. “It’s really important to be able to understand other people’s viewpoints,” Daleiden says. “In order to do this kind of work, you have to be able to relate to the other side.” Daleiden considers Deborah Nucatola, the Planned Parenthood senior medical director who is seen in one of the videos discussing fetal-tissue prices over red wine at an upscale bistro, to be a friend.

To Planned Parenthood, Daleiden is a partisan enemy. In a July 20 letter to members of Congress, the organization called him an “extremist” who used selective editing “to create the impression that Planned Parenthood sells tissue, profits from tissue donation for medical research, or violates other laws in this area–which is simply not true,” attorney Roger Evans wrote. Vicki Saporta, CEO of the National Abortion Federation, told TIME the tapes have triggered the most virulent burst of antiabortion sentiment in 20 years, including death threats and three potential acts of arson at clinics. “They tried to entrap people into saying things,” Saporta says, “and then selectively edit videos to inflame anti-choice sentiments.”

By that standard, the caper was effective. Snippets suggest abortion providers may be willing to tailor surgeries to boost the chances of obtaining tissues, which would raise uncomfortable ethical questions. Another exchange appears to depict a Planned Parenthood executive debating the cost of fetal specimens. At one point in that conversation, which resembles a negotiation, the executive makes a joke about wanting a Lamborghini.

The tapes are also notable for what they do not show. Daleiden and his supporters say the project proves that Planned Parenthood profits from hawking baby parts, which would be a crime. “The express purpose,” says Newman, was “bringing prosecution” against the organization. But Planned Parenthood executives repeatedly say in the videos that they don’t profit from selling fetal organs and want only to cover the costs of providing them to medical researchers.

Lurid details ricocheting around the Internet were inaccurate or distorted, like Fiorina’s grisly description of an image from the investigation. “Watch a fully formed fetus on the table,” she said, “its heart beating, its legs kicking.” Daleiden captured no such footage from the organization’s clinics, though one video includes an interview with a former fetal-tissue technician who claims to have seen a similar event, which was edited together with footage of unknown origin collected by a separate antiabortion group. Confronted about the accuracy of her statement, Fiorina didn’t backtrack.

In the midst of a political storm, fury can often matter more than the facts. An activist with an agenda can shape policies that affect millions; it was only five years ago that misleading sting videos taken by the conservative provocateur James O’Keefe destroyed ACORN, another nonprofit organization that became an obsession on the right. There are no signs that Planned Parenthood will meet the same fate; its support is holding steady, while its fundraising has gotten a boost from the ordeal. But the impact of the videos is undeniable for patients in the states that have since defunded Planned Parenthood or launched investigations.

The catalyst of the commotion was almost a forgotten figure. For Daleiden, who considers abortion a practice akin to slavery and calls himself an investigative journalist, the fallout from the footage has been gratifying. “It’s part of the broader social-justice tradition,” he says of the undercover videos. “It’s a medium for illustrating the victim and the atrocity.”

Write to Alex Altman at alex_altman@timemagazine.com.

This appears in the October 05, 2015 issue of TIME.

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