BRADENTON -- The Freedom of Information Act allows American citizens legal access to unreleased information held by the federal government. Ryan Shapiro, an MIT doctorate student, is taking this right to the extreme. In response to his recent lawsuit against several federal intelligence agencies, the FBI has released two sets of documents detailing spying activities on former South African president Nelson Mandela during and after the Cold War era.
The first batch of documents, released in May, obtained information gathered while Mandela was visiting the U.S. in 1990, just after his release from 27 years in prison. The FBI used an undercover informant to pose as a member of Mandela’s entourage. The spy served as a tool for gathering information on Mandela’s future political plans, specifically those regarding the elimination of apartheid, a racial segregation system implemented in South Africa from 1948 to 1994.
The second set of documents, released earlier this month, exposed spying on Mandela even while he was still imprisoned. Translated information from global newspapers was used to monitor his activities, released statements, and estimations regarding his release date.
The most recent information also described Mandela’s meetings with foreign government officials, such as the former president of Yugoslavia Janez Drnovsek and various Puerto Rican nationalists, all who supported his anti-apartheid movement.
The motive for spying?
“The newly released documents not only bring to light additional politically motivated FBI spying on Mandela, they also expose something even darker," Shapiro said. "The FBI aggressively investigated the U.S. and South African anti-apartheid movements as Communist plots imperiling American security.”
The agency viewed Mandela’s movement against apartheid as an effort to establish a communist government in its place, under the legislation of Mandela’s party, the African National Congress. In an August 1990 document, the FBI called for the persecution of civil rights activist Charles Hayes after he suggested “Nelson Mandela Day” as a national holiday, an action that had it convinced he served as a member of the Communist Party USA.
The FBI, along with similar information bureaus, was convinced these communist plots were a threat to national security. Throughout the documents, codes 100 and 229 were repeated several times. These numbers correlate to “domestic security” and “counterintelligence”, respectively. Not only was the FBI determined to gather as much information as they could from Mandela and other potential communist threats, but it was also set on exposing internal spying by outside organizations, ironically.
The FBI’s claim that communism and the need to protect U.S. security was the reason for its activities is debatable, however.
“The documents demonstrate the FBI continued its wrong-headed Communist menace investigations of Mandela and the anti-apartheid movement even after U.S. imposition of trade sanctions against apartheid South Africa,” Shapiro further reveals.
With this most recent batch of information have come more questions. There is no doubt the FBI has more documents to be released. Shapiro’s lawsuit also targeted the National Security Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Defense Intelligence Agency, as well, but, as of now, these groups have yet to respond.
As for Shapiro himself, he has established quite a reputation as a notorious FOIA activist. The Department of Justice classifies him as the “most prolific”, and the FBI sees him as a major threat, “irreparably damag[ing] to national security.”