Nelson Mandela. (photo: Getty)
The MIT Historian Suing the CIA for Transparency on Nelson Mandela
18 May 16
This weekend, The Sunday Times reported that a former CIA agent confessed to having been responsible for the arrest of Nelson Mandela in 1962. The arrest led to Mandela spending 27 years in prison. The CIA agent, Donald Rickard, issued the confession in an interview conducted just two weeks before his death.
Though embarrassing for the CIA, Rickard’s admission may prove a boon for historian Ryan Shapiro’s lawsuit against the Agency, which seeks to liberate CIA records pertaining to Mandela via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
Shapiro, a PhD candidate and national security historian at MIT, is no stranger to FOIA: he currently has thousands of FOIA requests in motion with the FBI alone and additional requests with other federal agencies including the NSA, DIA, DOJ, DOD and, of course, the CIA. In fact, Shapiro recently managed to pry documentary evidence from the FBI that it aggressively targeted not only Mandela but also the US and African anti-apartheid movements. As Shapiro’s documents revealed, the FBI believed Mandela and the anti-apartheid struggle to be sinister Communist forces threatening American security.
Shapiro doesn’t mince words about the target of his FOIA salvos. He told RSN:
The CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies have a long and sad track record of policing political dissent, especially when that dissent involves efforts for racial justice. Just as the CIA worked to counter Mandela and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, the FBI actively surveilled and suppressed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights movement at home.
The U.S. intelligence agencies are deeply allergic to transparency in general, and to the Freedom of Information Act in particular. Indeed, since the Freedom of Information Act was first applied to their activities in 1974, the American intelligence community has viewed the Freedom of Information Act itself as threat to national security.
The FBI would seem to be no fan of Shapiro’s either, judging from its treatment of him. The Bureau recently took the controversial step of refusing to even decide whether or not to respond to his FOIA requests, on grounds that it would threaten national security. As Shapiro told RSN, “The FBI is arguing that compliance with my dissertation FOIA research would ‘significantly and irreparably damage national security.’ Keep in mind, the FBI isn’t arguing that giving me the documents I’ve requested would damage national security, although they clearly believe this to be the case. Rather, the FBI is asserting in court that simply deciding whether or not to give me the requested documents would irreparably damage national security.”
Shapiro regards Rickard’s admission as support for his lawsuit. He told RSN: “With CIA agent Rickard’s unrepentant admission, the CIA’s self-serving justifications for withholding these critically important documents regarding the Agency’s role in Mandela’s arrest grows weaker by the day. The CIA’s continued efforts to avoid compliance with my Freedom of Information Act lawsuit for these records is a testament to the strength of the CIA’s hostility to social justice struggles and transparency.”
In his case against the CIA, Shapiro is represented by DC-based FOIA specialist attorney Jeffrey Light. Asked about the significance of a Rickard’s admitted involvement in Mandela’s arrest, Light told RSN, “It will likely allow us to make more informed and persuasive arguments.”
Though the CIA is notoriously resistant to transparency, this doesn’t seem to deter Shapiro from what some might call a quixotic struggle. To quote Mandela, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
Ken Klippenstein is an American journalist who can be reached via email:firstname.lastname@example.org
Ryan Shapiro can be reached on twitter @_rshapiro
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