NSA Invokes “National Defense” and the Espionage Act to Stonewall MIT Student’s FOIA Request on Nelson Mandela

[WASHINGTON, DC] Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) PhD candidate Ryan Shapiro filed a lawsuit this morning against the National Security Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Defense Intelligence Agency over the spy agencies’ failure to comply with his Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for records on anti-apartheid activist and South African President, Nelson Mandela. Shapiro’s requests seek, among other records, documents pertaining to the U.S intelligence community’s role in Mandela’s 1962 arrest and Mandela’s placement on the U.S. terror watch list until 2008. Shapiro is already suing the Central Intelligence Agency over this same failure. Shapiro wants to know why the NSA, FBI, DIA, and CIA viewed Mandela as a threat to American security, and what actions the Agency took to thwart Mandela’s efforts to secure racial justice and democracy in South Africa.

Notably, in addition to invoking the Espionage Act (Title 18 U.S. Code 798), the NSA’s denial of Shapiro’s FOIA request (see embedded document) invokes “national defense” to support the agency’s refusal to even acknowledge the existence of records about Mandela. Asserts the NSA, “the fact of the existence or non-existence of the materials you request is a currently and properly classified matter [….] to be kept secret in the interest of national defense[.]”

A .PDF of Shapiro’s Lawsuit Filed This Morning is Available HERE

Shapiro, a FOIA specialist, is an historian of the political functioning of national security and the policing of dissent. His pathbreaking FOIA work has already led the FBI to declare his MIT dissertation research a threat to national security. Shapiro is represented by FOIA specialist attorney Jeffrey Light.

Two Key Features of Shapiro’s Lawsuit & Broader Pro-Transparency Effort:

1) Despite longstanding public knowledge of definite (if undefined) U.S. intelligence assistance to apartheid South Africa in general, and likely involvement in Mandela’s 1962 arrest in particular, much of the U.S. and world press has paid distressingly little attention to these issues. Even in the wake of Mandela’s death, these issues, including the fact that Mandela remained on the U.S. terror watch list until 2008, have for the most part remained ignored or discounted. In addition to beginning to fill these massive holes in public knowledge of U.S. intelligence operations, Shapiro’s FOIA efforts will bring much-needed attention to these vital topics, as well as to the U.S. intelligence community’s continued outrageous aversion to transparency.

2) The Freedom of Information Act is broken. The Department of Justice and the CIA continue to prevent the FOIA release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA torture program, despite the Senate Committee’s call for the report’s release. And as the Associated Press reported last week, despite entering office promising to be “the most transparent administration in history,” the Obama administration cites “national security” to censor and deny FOIA releases “more than ever.” The failures of the NSA, FBI, DIA, and CIA to comply with Shapiro’s FOIA requests for records on Nelson Mandela are further glaring examples of this anti-transparency trend. For this reason, Shapiro is not only turning to the courts to force agency compliance with his FOIA requests, he is also turning to the American people to address the ongoing crisis of secrecy more broadly. To this end, Shapiro is urging all persons with access to unreleased records pertaining to illegal, unconstitutional, or immoral government activities to return those records to their rightful owners, the American people. As Shapiro is quoted below, “See something, leak something.”

According to Shapiro:
Regarding the Mandela lawsuit »

“Though the U.S. intelligence community is long believed to have been involved in Mandela’s arrest, little specific public information exists regarding this involvement. Similarly, though the U.S. intelligence community is long known to have routinely provided information to the South African regime regarding the anti-apartheid movement, little specific public information exists about these activities either. Further, despite now being universally hailed as a hero and freedom fighter against gross injustice, Mandela was designated a terrorist by the United States government and remained on the U.S. terror watch list until 2008.

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?”

Regarding the crisis of secrecy more broadly »

“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. The Bush administration initiated a disastrous welter of anti-transparency initiatives, yet the Obama administration has been, if anything, worse. Despite entering office promising unprecedented openness, the Obama administration has provided just the opposite, including bringing more Espionage Act prosecutions of whistleblowers than all previous administrations combined, and invoking “national security” to deny FOIA requests “more than ever.” FOIA is broken, and this sad reality is just one component among many of the ongoing crisis of secrecy we now face.

The records of government are the property of the people. Yet, unknown billions of pages are needlessly hidden from the American people behind closed doors and “classified” markings. Undefined “national security” concerns ostensibly legitimize this secrecy. Yet, as wrote Judge Murray Gurfein in his ruling against the Nixon administration’s infamous attempt to prevent the New York Times from publishing the leaked “Pentagon Papers,” “The security of the Nation is not at the ramparts alone. Security also lies in the value of our free institutions.”

Building upon the Pentagon Papers ruling, we as a nation need to foster a broader understanding of “national security.” In the interest of preserving the national security borne not of secrecy and state surveillance, but rather of the free exchange of ideas made possible by “our free institutions,” I call upon all persons with access to unreleased records pertaining to illegal, unconstitutional, or immoral government activities to return those records to their rightful owners, the American people.

It’s not surprising those in power wish to keep their actions secret. What’s surprising is how readily we tolerate it. 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.”

To arrange an interview with Ryan Shapiro please email or text Andy Stepanian at andy@sparrowmedia.org or 631.291.3010. A high resolution copy of the photo of Ryan Shapiro above is available royalty-free × photo credit Stephanie Crumley.  You can follow Ryan Shapiro on twitter at @_rshapiro