A Ph.D. candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is suing three government agencies to get answers about America's role in Nelson Mandela's infamous 1962 arrest.
In a lawsuit filed Tuesday morning, Ryan Shapiro targets the National Security Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Defense Intelligence Agency for their failure to comply with Freedom of Information Act requests he has filed (read the full complaint below).
Shapiro is searching for proof of allegations that a CIA tip led to Mandela’s 1962 arrest by the South African government, which put the anti-apartheid leader in prison for 27 years. While Mandela died a celebrated political figure who represented the fight for racial justice, in life he was decried as a radical Marxist by many American politicians, and he remained on the U.S. terror watch list until 2008.
The legal complaint obtained by HuffPost Live states that Shapiro anticipates the records will answer questions about the extent and purpose of the U.S. intelligence communities' surveillance of Nelson Mandela prior to his arrest, what role they played in his arrest and prosecution, and the U.S. intelligence communities' role in the broader effort to surveil and subvert the South African anti-apartheid movement.
Shapiro originally filed FOIA requests with the CIA, NSA, FBI and DIA days after Mandela’s death in December 2013. He filed a lawsuit against the CIA for the agency’s non-compliance in January 2014, but according to Shapiro, the varying responses from said intelligence agencies forced him to wait to pursue further court action.
The NSA flatly denied Shapiro’s request for records by refusing to even acknowledge their existence. The agency wrote in a response: “The fact of the existence or non-existence of the materials you request is a currently and properly classified matter” and used exemptions within an executive order for the material “to be kept secret in the interest of national defense or foreign relations.”
“The failure of the NSA, FBI, DIA, and CIA to comply with my FOIA requests for records on Mandela highlights that FOIA is broken and that this sad reality is just one component among many of the ongoing crisis of secrecy we now face,” Shapiro told The Huffington Post.
While the CIA, NSA and DIA may have a greater chance of thwarting requests through national security exemptions, the FBI may have a more difficult time if its records relate to domestic intelligence gathering.
The legal complaint also states that Shapiro anticipates the records will answer questions about the extent of the intelligence community’s surveillance of the anti-apartheid movement in the U.S.
While this legal challenge focuses specifically on the intelligence community's attempts to cover up past involvement in global affairs, Shapiro points to the current climate of secrecy which he believes enables similar actions here at home. “More recently, this same blinkered understanding of national security has led the U.S. intelligence community to target the animal rights, environmental, anti-war, and Occupy movements as threats to the state," he told The Huffington Post. "In the interest of democracy, we must fight this myopic vision of security and the governmental obsession with secrecy that sustains it.”
Shapiro is no stranger to using the legal system to pursue a more transparent government. He currently has over 700 FOIA requests in motion with the FBI, and five lawsuits against the agency for failure to comply with FOIA.
Media profiles have dubbed Shapiro "The FBI’s Worst Nightmare," a “FOIA Superhero,” and the Department of Justice has even given him the label of the most prolific Freedom of Information Act requester. The FBI has gone so far as to say that Shapiro’s requests could “significantly and irreparably damage national security.”
Shapiro, however, remains undaunted, and believes that the responsibility lies with the public to keep the government accountable.
“It’s not surprising those in power wish to keep their actions secret. What’s surprising is how readily we tolerate it," he said. "We are all familiar with the security-oriented signage instructing us to 'See something, Say something.' In the interest of promoting a fuller conception of national security, I add, 'See something, Leak something.' The viability of our democracy may depend upon it.”