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Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela

by Zenitha Prince

( — American intelligence agencies spied on the late South African leader Nelson Mandela during his historic 1990 visit to the United States, shortly after he was released from prison, where he served a 27-year sentence for anti-apartheid activism.

That revelation is but one of the findings from a batch of documents released by the FBI in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit filed by Ryan Shapiro, a doctoral candidate in history at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The 38-year-old historian sued the FBI, National Security Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency in March for failing to fulfill FOIA requests for records about the spy agencies’ alleged involvement in Mandela’s 1962 arrest and his placement on the U.S. terror watch list until 2008, among other things.

“Though it’s unfortunate it required a lawsuit, I’m of course pleased the FBI is now complying in part with my FOIA request,” Shapiro told the AFRO. “As a result, we now have evidence the FBI spied on Mandela while they were supposed to be protecting him.”

According to the documents, the FBI developed a confidential informant, referred to as the “source,” who was at least closely affiliated with Mandela’s U.S. entourage. That informant provided logistical information, such as places and times where Mandela would be, and political information, such as a prospective meeting with Louis Farrakhan, and the identities and recent travels of African National Congress (ANC) leaders in the U.S. At the time, the ANC was still considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. government.

The FBI documents also revealed that several death threats were made against Mandela during his visit. A particularly disturbing one came in the form of a handwritten letter attached to a Houston Chronicle article about the iconic leader’s potential visit to the Texas city. It threatened, “Remember John F. Kennedy in Dallas? Bring this black murderer to Houston and we will give him a welcome that the world will not forget!!!”

Shapiro said there were several issues that were not addressed in the hundreds of pages provided by the FBI.

“What’s missing from these documents is often as illuminative as what’s disclosed,” he said. “Not only did the FBI heavily redact and withhold documents, but there’s virtually no discussion of U.S. intelligence community involvement prior to Mandela’s 1990 release from prison.

“Worse,” he added, “the agencies most likely to possess such records, the CIA and NSA, continue their refusal to comply with my FOIA requests. Hopefully the judge will compel these agencies to release their documents, but it shouldn’t take a lawsuit to obtain records from a FOIA request. And it’s an especially sad day when the notoriously anti-FOIA FBI is the agency coming closest to compliance with the requirements of the statute.”

Shapiro, a historian who focuses on political functioning of national security and the policing of dissent, said his FOIA requests and follow-up lawsuits were part of his campaign to increase transparency among U.S. government agencies.

“The democratic process cannot meaningfully function without an informed citizenry, and such a citizenry is impossible without broad public access to information about the operations of government,” he said. “It’s time for the U.S. intelligence community to recognize transparency not as a threat, but rather as an essential component of viable democracy.”


IBW21 (The Institute of the Black World 21st Century) is committed to enhancing the capacity of Black communities in the U.S. and globally to achieve cultural, social, economic and political equality and an enhanced quality of life for all marginalized people.