They've got muck; we've got rakes. TPM Muckraker
The American Border Patrol was set up under its current name in 2002 following Spencer's move from California to Arizona, according to the SPLC. The center has called Spencer the person who "may have done more than anyone to spread the myth of a secret Mexican conspiracy to reconquer the Southwest (an effort supposedly known as 'la reconquista')." Past iterations of Spencer's group have warned of blood "flowing" on the border and in L.A. and an "invasion spreading across America like wildfire." He has urged white people to get out of California "before it is too late." "Every illegal alien in our nation must be deported immediately," he said in 1999, according to the SPLC. "If we can bomb the TV station in Belgrade [in the former Yugoslavia], we can shut down [U.S. Spanish-language TV networks] Telemundo and Univision."
"I have many Jewish friends and they have been extremely instrumental in fighting illegal immigration," Spencer wrote. "I fear, however, that this small handful of patriotic Americans are far outnumbered by liberal Jews who now have total control over our media."
In his current effort, Spencer is being represented by Munger, a well-connected attorney who ran briefly for governor in 2010, chaired the Arizona Republican Party in the 1980s, and has held roles on various gubernatorial and presidential campaigns over the years. Munger has helped Spencer with these kinds of threats before. In 2012, Munger threatened legal action against Luis Heredia, the executive director of the Arizona Democratic Party, after Heredia called Spencer a "purported racist" and an "anti-Semite."
Heidi Beirich, the leader of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project, told TPM on Tuesday that the intent of the letters is almost certainly to scare journalists and others away from citing the hate group label in the future. But she said the center stands by its characterization of Spencer's group.
"He hangs out with white nationalists," Beirich said. "He's made white nationalist statements. He's bashed immigrants. And reading between the lines, it looks like he's upset that he's not getting some kind of contract, [a] border contract, with the government, and that the hate thing has been brought up repeatedly. And all I have to say about that is, you're the one who earned it, Spencer."
Notably, though, what is motivating Spencer's latest round of legal threats isn't so much the normal outrage any of us might feel at being labeled an extremist or a member of a hate group. On Tuesday, TPM spoke to Spencer. And he was quite clear on what prompted his latest batch of letters from his lawyers: Business.
Over the past several years, Spencer and a company he runs, Border Technology, Inc., have been developing technology he claims can help secure the border with Mexico. On its website, the company touts its work with drones and cameras. According to Spencer, he's now got something really, really big coming. Like billion dollar big. But the pesky "hate group" label just won't go away.
"I've been suffering the slings and arrows of the Southern Poverty Law Center for years," Spencer said. "I've decided not to put up with it anymore. And I'm going to be in an position to defend myself. And also we have some things coming up where they can do a lot of damage, these things, these lies, this fabricated crap that they put out."
The hate group label popped up again last month when a Republican gubernatorial candidate in Arizona name-checked the American Border Patrol in a discussion about "virtual fence" technology on the state's border with Mexico. TPM and other news outlets published articles citing the SPLC's designation of the group.
In Spencer's mind, the timing had been terrible. Before the candidate's comments, Spencer said, he had been working with his attorneys on a letter demanding that the Southern Poverty Law Center "stop this slander and libelous crap that they've been putting out."
But when he spoke with TPM, Spencer was more focused on the potential of his new technology than on the legal threats he's been making. According to Spencer, sensor technology he's developing will create jobs in Arizona. It will help secure the border. And it "may be worth a billion dollars to me." Spencer even sees potential beyond the borders of the United States.
"A presentation is being made this week in Ankara, Turkey, to the government, for a system to defend and protect their high-speed rail," Spencer said. "Because people found out about it and they said, 'Oh, my god.' I got an email in from Kenya. A group that I'm working with over there. The minister of wildlife is very familiar with this system, and they may have, they're probably going to have an element in their budget that comes out in June of this year, to help protect the elephants. That's going to happen. Let me tell you something, I've got one of the big five DoD contractors. I've been working with them for more than a year. I haven't said anything about it. One of the big five. They tell me, after studying this thing for more than a year, that we have just come up with one of the most incredible security systems ever."
Asked pointedly why TPM shouldn't be allowed to cite the Southern Poverty Law Center when covering him and his group, Spencer said that was a question for his lawyer. But he stood by his past work, mentioning in particular a video he made called "The Conquest of Aztlan," about the supposed Mexican attempts to reconquer the Southwest. The conservative website WND has praised the way the video shows how "U.S. immigration policies and lax enforcement are paving the way for this invasion."
"I stand by 'The Conquest of Aztlan,'" Spencer said. "I believe that video has helped quiet down the radicals."
In his interview with TPM, Spencer also said he expected this reporter to try to "twist" his words.
"You're going to dig around for some little kernel that you can condemn someone for," Spencer said. "Despite all of the work on the border. Despite all of the technology. Despite all of this work trying to help defend the United States of America against the wholesale crossing of our border by who knows who. Despite all of that -- that means nothing, Spencer. We're going to get you. We're going to get you, for all the stuff you've done. All a bunch of crap."
Ironically, Spencer's complaints about the Southern Poverty Law Center come at a time when the center's research is being widely cited by media outlets covering the fatal shootings Sunday at two Jewish centers in Kansas. The suspect in the shootings, Frazier Glenn Miller, is a white supremacist whose activities have long been monitored by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
But Andrew Barbour, part of the legal team representing Spencer, told TPM that he considers the Southern Poverty Law Center to be "not particularly credible anymore."
"Personally, I think [the Southern Poverty Law Center] started out as a very noble organization," Barbour said. "But I think they've sort of gotten into the habits of labeling groups. And they're seeing ghosts where there aren't any. I don't want to detract from their legitimate work against real hate groups like neo-Nazis and the KKK, but Spencer, he's not those things. He's concerned about law enforcement."
Barbour said the letters have already had some effect. The Phoenix television station that received a letter, Barbour pointed out, has already removed the content in question from its website. The station's general manager did not return a call Wednesday seeking comment.