The Intelligence Project is a department of the nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a major civil rights organization based in Montgomery, Alabama, that specializes in monitoring, investigating, and curbing the American radical right. Started in 1981 under the name of Klanwatch, the Intelligence Project changed its name in the 1990s to reflect the expansion of its bailiwick to a large variety of other extreme-right individuals, groups, and movements.
The roots of the Intelligence Project stretch back to 1979. That year, Curtis Robinson, a black man, shot a Ku Klux Klansman (KKK) in self-defense in Decatur, Alabama, during an attack on peaceful civil rights marchers by more than 100 club-wielding members of the Invisible Empire Klan. When Robinson was convicted by an allwhite jury of assault with intent to murder, the SPLC appealed the conviction and brought its first civil suit against the Klan. During trial proceedings, evidence was uncovered that convinced the FBI to reopen the case, ultimately resulting in the conviction of nine Klansmen on criminal charges. They also discovered the extent to which the KKK had rebounded after its decline in the 1960s. This led to the decision to create Klanwatch in 1981.
In the early years, Klanwatch operated essentially as the investigative arm of the SPLC’s legal department, which was pioneering new legal avenues of attack against hate groups. In 1981, nineteen-year-old Michael Donald was on his way to the store when two members of the United Klans of America abducted him, beat him, cut his throat and hung his body from a tree on a residential street in Mobile, Alabama. The two Klansmen who killed Donald were arrested and convicted, but Klanwatch investigators also found evidence to support a civil suit alleging conspiracy, eventually winning a historic $7 million verdict against the United Klans and several individual Klansmen. The most violent Klan group of the civil rights era was forced to turn its headquarters building over to Beulah Mae Donald and to disband.
Klanwatch investigations supported a number of other path-breaking suits against hate groups. In the 1980s, an SPLC suit forced the White Patriot Party, then the South’s most militant Klan group, to disband after investigators found it was using U.S. army personnel to train Klan recruits, and that it had acquired stolen military weapons. Another suit resulted in Tom Metzger and John Metzger and their neo-Nazi White Aryan Resistance (WAR) being found partly responsible for the 1988 murder of an Ethiopian student by racist skinheads in Portland, Oregon. In the 1990s, Klanwatch investigators built a case against the neo-Nazi Church of the Creator after one of its “reverends” murdered a black Gulf War veteran. Other suits resulted in judgments against the Christian Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and its leaders for conspiring to burn black churches, and, in 2000, against the neo-Nazi Aryan Nations and its leaders because of an attack on two hapless passersby by heavily armed Aryan Nations security guards.
While the original purpose of Klanwatch was to gather information about the Klan, it expanded over the years to monitor hate crimes and an array of other kinds of extremists—including neo-Nazis, racist skinheads, Christian Identity adherents, academic racists, violent anti-abortionists, anti-immigrant vigilantes, black supremacists, neo-Confederates, and, notably, the militias that appeared in the mid-1990s. Well before the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City left 168 men, women, and children dead, Klanwatch investigators documented the rise of the antigovernment militia movement and its links to white supremacist groups and their leaders. In the aftermath of the bombing, officials of Klanwatch and the SPLC were called upon by law enforcement, media outlets and many others to provide expertise on the American radical right. SPLC cofounder Morris Dees testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on terrorism just eight days after the attack, and Klanwatch staffers would go on to testify on numerous occasions to Congress, the United Nations, and a number of local and state legislative bodies. Their expertise is supported by a Klanwatch’s remarkable database, dubbed “Beholder,” the nation’s most comprehensive on the radical right.
The Intelligence Project is known for the quality of its factual investigative work and the information it provides to reporters, scholars, and law enforcement agencies. Its prestige has risen to the point where U.S. News & World Report, for instance, said in 1999 that its “state-of-the-art tracking system” had “bested the nation’s mighty law enforcement agencies” in connecting a man who shot up a Jewish community center in Los Angeles with the notorious Aryan Nations group.
The Intelligence Project pursues three basic strategies in carrying out its mission of curbing right-wing extremism: (1) Providing information to the public on the radical right and its activities; (2) educating law enforcement officials and supporting their efforts to counter criminal extremist activity; and (3) carrying out the investigative work necessary to pursue civil suits against hate and other extremist groups.
The Project’s primary public education vehicle is its magazine, the Intelligence Report. The Report began as a Klanwatch newsletter of a few pages in 1981, but it evolved over time into a glossy, full-color quarterly magazine that has become the nation’s pre-eminent periodical on the radical right. The Report is offered free to those whose work relates to right-wing extremism, including more than 60,000 law enforcement officials. In addition, journalists frequently use the groundbreaking stories as fodder to produce their own news articles and broadcast reports.
The magazine has covered a wide array of topics, from annual analyses of the radical right to major profiles of individual extremists and groups. It has examined such phenomena as the use of the Internet by hate groups; the development of White Power music and its importance, the rise and fall of the militias of the 1990s, the proliferation of hate activity on school campuses, and the development of radical new ideologies such as racist variants of Neopaganism and “pan-Aryanism.” It has frequently used information dug up in investigations to damage or even destroy hate groups. On one occasion, a neo-Nazi group was completely wrecked when its leader’s partly Jewish heritage was revealed. On another, a key leader left the white supremacist movement after the Report revealed he was secretly running a pornography Web site and a magazine that carried interracial and bisexual sex ads.
The Intelligence Report also carries listings once per year of all hate groups and antigovernment “Patriot” groups active in the previous year, including a map showing their locations and types. These listings typically result in hundreds of local newspaper and broadcast stories that raise local awareness about the groups. A few examples of some of the more important stories carried by the Intelligence Report help to give a sense of other ways the magazine works to damage hate groups.
In late 1998 the Report published a special edition detailing the white supremacist roots and ideology of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a group that then had thirty-four members in the Mississippi state legislature and claimed to be merely a conservative organization. The story detailed the racism of the group and its leaders and pointed out its close relationship with Trent Lott of Mississippi, then the U.S. Senate majority leader. As a result, the head of the Republican National Committee asked Republicans to avoid the group. In 2004, the Report followed up with a story about politicians who ignored that advice, embarrassing a large number of legislators and effectively curtailing the group’s ability to attract any kind of political legitimacy.
In 1999 a special issue of the Report explored the socioeconomic roots of racist youth in a group of stories that detailed how “an underclass of white youths, in many cases buffeted by the winds of huge social changes and dislocations,” was “altering the face of American hatred.” In 2000 an entire issue of the magazine was devoted to the burgeoning neo-Confederate movement, made up of racist groups that seek to justify slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and a number of other hateful doctrines. Subsequent investigative articles detailed the development of the movement and led to the severe disruption of the 32,000-member southern heritage group Sons of Confederate Veterans, which had been largely taken over by extremists.
A series of major reports in various issues have detailed the white supremacist and paramilitary strains that characterize large swaths of the organized anti-immigration movement. A particularly important piece explored the role of a Michigan ophthalmologist with bigoted ideas about Hispanics in constructing and building up most of the nation’s anti-immigration organizations.
A 2001 article reported on a detailed Intelligence Project analysis of hate crime statistics, concluding that, nationally, hate crimes are undercounted by a factor of five. Other reports on hate crimes detailed how homosexuals are the group most targeted by violent hate criminals and, separately, explored a wave of fatal violence directed at transsexuals. Another, related report explored a rash of Georgia hate crimes that were part of a backlash against illegal aliens.
Beginning in 2002, a series of articles included extremely detailed and closely held information about the National Alliance, at that time the nation’s leading neo-Nazi group. The first, published shortly after the Alliance found-er’s death, detailed a secret speech he had given recently that savaged members of other hate groups as “freaks and weak-lings.” The report severely damaged the group’s reputation, and started a series of internal splits and other battles that have left the Alliance a mere shadow of its former self. By 2005, the Alliance had been reduced to less than a seventh of its size just three years earlier. In 2005, the Report ran a major cover story on the development of the religious right’s crusade against homosexuals, a war that began some three decades earlier but heated up with a 2003 Supreme Court decision striking down state sodomy statutes. The story detailed the false “science” and bully-boy tactics employed by many Christian Right leaders to defame gays and lesbians.
The Intelligence Project increasingly has used other methods to fight extremism as well. In the fall of 2003, Project investigators exposed a major attempt by anti-immigration zealots to take over the Sierra Club, a major environmental group with some 750,000 members. A letter was sent to the president of the Club warning him and others that the Sierra Club was “the subject of a hostile takeover attempt” and providing detailed factual material about that attempt. At the conclusion of a lengthy campaign, Sierra Club voters decisively rejected the takeover attempt.
Another form of outreach is the education and training programs that the Intelligence Project offers law enforcement. In 1992, the program’s director was asked to help the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) develop a training program to improve the reporting, investigation, and prosecution of hate crimes. The next year, Project staffers wrote and began teaching courses that are a permanent part of FLETC’s hate/bias crime training. In the early twenty-first century, Project staffers offer seminars and other training on hate groups, terrorism and related matters to law enforcement agencies around the country. In 2001 the Project began offering an online hate crimes training program for law enforcement officers that is co-sponsored by California State University at San Bernadino.
Probably the single best measure of the efficacy of the Intelligence Project is the virulent hatred directed against its staffers by members of the radical right. The SPLC has seen repeated rallies and demonstrations near its headquarters by neo-Nazis, Klansmen, and a variety of other white supremacists. In 1983 the SPLC’s offices were burned by enraged Klansmen, forcing a move to a new building but raising the profile of the organization. In addition, over the decades, more than twenty people have been sent to prison in connection with plots against the SPLC.
Dees, Morris. 1991. A Season for Justice: The Life and Times of Civil Rights Lawyer Morris Dees. New York: Scribner.
Dees, Morris, with Steve Feiffer. 1993. Hate on Trial: The Case against America’s Most Dangerous Neo-Nazi. New York: Villard.
Dees, Morris, and Ellen Bowden. 1995. “Courtroom Victories: Taking Hate Groups to Court.” Trial 31 (2): 20–29.
Dees, Morris, with James Corcoran. 1997. Gathering Storm: America’s Militia Threat. New York: Harper Perennial.
Gannon, Julie. 1997. “We Can’t Afford Not to Fight’: Morris Dees Takes Bigotry to Court.” Trial 33 (1): 18–24.
Intelligence Project. Available from http://www.splcenter.org/.
Intelligence Report. Montgomery, AL: Southern Poverty Law Center. Available from http://www.intelligencereport.org.
Stanton, Bill. 1991. Klanwatch: Bringing the Ku Klux Klan to Justice. New York: Grove Press.
Heidi L. Beirich