Montgomery McFate Speaks (Sorta)

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis, the election, and more, subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter.


The latest issue of Wired carries a piece on Montgomery McFate, the Harvard and Yale educated anthropologist—and onetime go-go dancer—who is one of the primary forces behind the army’s controversial Human Terrain Program. The $130 million program, which has been sharply criticized [PDF] by the American Anthropological Association, among others, on ethical grounds, aims to bring cultural understanding to military units operating in Afghanistan and Iraq by embedding social scientists with combat detachments. The article largely focuses on McFate’s Human Terrain work, though there was one paragraph that jumped out for me, as it relates to the story we ran in late July, disclosing that for more than a decade a freelance spy named Mary Lou Sapone (also known as Mary McFate) had infiltrated the inner sanctum of the gun control movement. Montgomery McFate is Sapone’s daughter-in-law—she once went by Montgomery Sapone—and, according records we obtained, she and her husband Sean McFate (a/k/a Sean Sapone) for some time worked for his mother’s private intelligence business.

Wired reports:

McFate herself has drawn fire from others in her field who say she’s more spy than scholar. Revelations that nearly a decade ago she worked for her mother-in-law, who allegedly infiltrated left-wing groups on behalf of their opponents, have fed the outrage. (McFate says she researched broad policy topics and that her mother-in-law — from whom she has been estranged for many years—never disclosed her clientele.)

From what I can tell, this is the first time McFate has publicly addressed her work for her mother-in-law, who has made a living spying on a host of activist groups. (She did not respond to an email from me seeking comment before we ran the story, and her husband, Sean, hung up on my colleague David Corn when he called him for his response.) McFate’s explanation to Wired doesn’t quite jibe with our reporting. While it’s possible, though unlikely, she was unaware of her mother-in-law’s specific clients, that’s beside the point since she was certainly aware of the business Mary Lou Sapone—and she herself—was in. In fact, McFate described her role in Mary Lou’s outfit in an old version of her resume that we got our hands on:

Collect and analyze intelligence on European activities of major international environmental organization for a company specializing in domestic and international opposition research, special investigations, issues management and threat assessment. Write weekly intelligence update on European animal rights and eco-terrorist activity. Assist in confidential litigation support research.

Moreover, during the time that Sapone was spying on the gun control movement for the gun lobby, McFate not only volunteered for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, but sat in for her mother-in-law at Washington strategy sessions attended by gun control officials. It would seem that this, along with her acknowledged work collecting and analyzing intelligence, went well beyond research “on broad policy topics.”

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

We Recommend

Latest