Government claims "national defense" excuse to keep Mandela files secret

MIT researcher Ryan Shapiro filed suit against NSA, CIA, FBI for failure to comply with Mandela files FOIA requests

Published March 25, 2014 3:08PM (EDT)

Prolific FOIA requester and MIT researcher Ryan Shapiro has been seeking information about the U.S. intelligence community's role in the 1962 arrest and placement on the U.S. terror watchlist of Nelson Mandela. Following government agencies' refusal to comply with his FOIA requests, Shapiro filed suit against the NSA, the FBI and and the Defense Intelligence Agency Tuesday, adding to an ongoing suit of the same nature against the CIA.

While Shapiro aims in his research to explore the U.S.'s potentially historic role in undermining anti-apartheid activism in South Africa, he has been met with a series of disturbing roadblocks. The NSA, for example, invoked both the Espionage Act and "national defense" to deny Shapiro's request for files. Shapiro's wide-ranging FOIA efforts (which led to the FBI declaring his MIT Ph.D. research a national security threat) is not only concerned with revealing historically significant and veiled facts about the history of U.S. national security operations. He explains that his efforts are, in a broader context, a fight against government secrecy. "Democracy cannot meaningfully exist without an informed citizenry, and such a citizenry is impossible without broad public access to information about the operations of government. Secrecy is a cancer on the body of democracy," Shapiro noted.

On Tuesday, as Sparrow Media reported, Shapiro released a statement on his latest lawsuit over the Mandela files. He commented:

In bringing suit against the NSA, FBI, DIA, and CIA to compel compliance with my Freedom of Information Act requests, I seek access to records that will begin answering the following questions:

What was the extent and purpose of the U.S. intelligence community’s surveillance of Nelson Mandela prior to his arrest? What role did the U.S. intelligence community play in Mandela’s arrest and prosecution? What role did the U.S. intelligence community play in the broader effort to surveil and subvert the South African anti-apartheid movement? To what extent, and for what objectives, did the U.S. intelligence community surveil Mandela following his release from prison? To what extent, if any, did the U.S. intelligence community continue providing information regarding Mandela to the apartheid regime following Mandela’s release from prison? What information did the U.S. intelligence community provide American policymakers regarding Mandela and the South African anti-apartheid movement? To what extent, and to what ends, did the U.S. intelligence community surveil the anti-apartheid movement in the United States? How did the United States government come to designate Nelson Mandela a terrorist threat to this country? How did this designation remain unchanged until 2008? And what was the role of the U.S. intelligence community in this designation and the maintenance thereof?”

By Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email

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Cia Fbi Foia Freedom Of Information Mit Nelson Mandela Nsa Ryan Shapiro