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Peter Southwick / AP

Exclusive: FBI spied on Nelson Mandela during first U.S. trip

Newly released files reveal informant on South African icon's historic 1990 visit, amid serious concerns for security

The FBI spied on Nelson Mandela when the legendary South African leader arrived in the United States in June 1990, according to newly released files exclusively obtained by Al Jazeera. A May 30, 1990, FBI memo from the Atlanta field office to then–FBI Director William Sessions about the upcoming visit noted that the bureau had cultivated a new confidential informant — either directly within Mandela’s inner circle or closely affiliated with his entourage — who had provided logistical information about Mandela’s travel itinerary.

Mandela arrived in the U.S. four months after his release from 27 years in prison, not only as the world’s most celebrated political prisoner and liberation icon but also as the leader of a U.S.-designated “terrorist organization.” The African National Congress was not removed from the State Department’s list of such organizations until 2008. Moreover, it was widely alleged at the time that the CIA had provided information to the apartheid authorities in South Africa that led to Mandela’s arrest in 1962, in line with a Cold War approach that treated many African liberation leaders as threats to U.S. interests.

Mandela arrived in the U.S. four months after his release from 27 years in prison, not only as the world’s most celebrated political prisoner and liberation icon but also as the leader of a U.S.-designated ‘terrorist organization.’

The memo — part of a trove of hundreds of pages of newly released FBI files obtained by Al Jazeera — says the FBI was told by its informant (who is described as “newly opened, and whose reliability is not yet established”) that a “member of Coretta Scott King’s staff” had planned Mandela’s Atlanta itinerary. King was the widow of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

The informant also reveals that Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan sought a meeting with Mandela during the 1990 visit. But the first meeting between the two men occurred six years later in Johannesburg.

The partially redacted FBI documents were turned over to Ryan Shapiro, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology doctoral candidate who studies the policing of dissent, in response to his Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. The 334 pages of records, which Shapiro provided to Al Jazeera, largely cover the June 1990 time frame and represent the FBI’s first interim release of files on Mandela. The FBI withheld 169 pages in their entirety on national security grounds.

“What’s missing from these documents is often as illuminative as what’s disclosed,” Shapiro told Al Jazeera. “Not only did the FBI heavily redact and withhold documents, but there’s virtually no discussion of U.S. intelligence community involvement prior to Mandela’s 1990 release from prison.”

Shapiro is suing the National Security Agency, CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency for their records on Mandela.

Protecting Mandela in America

By 1990, of course, the Cold War was effectively over, and the administration of President George H.W. Bush was cultivating a relationship with Mandela and his organization, mindful of the likelihood that they would lead South Africa’s first democratically elected government. The FBI documents reflect the fact that the major challenge facing U.S. security services during the 1990 visit was keeping Mandela safe in the face of dozens of death threats received in the days preceding his arrival.

“Remember John F. Kennedy in Dallas?? Bring this black murderer to Houston and we will give him a welcome the world will not forget!!!” read a handwritten letter, in all caps, postmarked May 26, 1990, and sent to the Houston Chronicle. The reverse side of the envelope that the letter was mailed in displayed a “white power” symbol.

“When Nelson Mandela comes, I’m going to kill him,” an anonymous male caller told a 911 dispatcher at the Auburn Hills police department in Michigan on June 13, 1990.

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On June 26, 1990, a middle-aged white man called the Georgia Institute of Technology, where Mandela was scheduled to speak, and told a student who answered the phone in the office of the president that “he and his two companions had spent their lives trying to stop Mandela.”

“He stated that they had weapons and means which to accomplish this task and had received military training,” according to an FBI report included in the files.

At the State Department, as the lead government agency responsible for Mandela’s security, there was enormous concern prior to his arrival in the U.S. about “terrorist activity being directed” at him, according to the files.

“[Department of State] representatives have classified the threat level for this visit as ‘high,’ and threats to harm Mr. Mandela have been received,” states a June 18, 1990, FBI memorandum sent to an FBI agent in Miami. One such communication specifically detailed that Mandela would be assassinated “either in Atlanta or Miami.”

The NSA, CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency were recipients of a letter sent by the secretary of state and were also included in cable traffic related to Mandela’s U.S. visit, according to files.

The FBI files show that the bureau logged numerous death threats against Mandela from skinheads, a Latino neo-Nazi group, the Ku Klux Klan, the Aryan Knights of the Great Forest and other “Aryan” organizations that the bureau struggled to identify.

The FBI, as well as state and local law enforcement, took the threats against Mandela seriously, even conducting laboratory and fingerprint analysis on the handwritten letter, according to the documents, in hopes of identifying the person who sent it. But the bureau never made an arrest. An internal memo distributed to government agencies in 1991, during Mandela’s second visit to the U.S., described undisclosed “security problems” connected to his first visit.

A November 7, 2000, threat assessment prepared by the State Department’s Office of Intelligence and Threat Analysis prior to another visit to the U.S. that Mandela had planned said the “primary threat” he faced emanated from “right-wing extremist groups or emotionally disturbed persons present in this country.”

“While we are aware of no information indicating that these elements are planning to target the former president, the possibility should not be ruled out — particularly given Mr. Mandela’s role in South Africa’s history,” the threat assessment said.

The undercurrent of violent loathing for Mandela reflected in the threatening communications stands in stark contrast to the rapturous welcome the South African leader received from hundreds of thousands of Americans gathered at concerts, rallies and ticker tape parades throughout his 11-day 1990 stay.

While we are aware of no information indicating that these elements are planning to target the former president, the possibility should not be ruled out — particularly given Mr. Mandela’s role in South Africa’s history.

State Department

Threat assessment in 2000

During Mandela’s six-week tour of the U.S. and Europe, he spoke against apartheid and urged the U.S. and foreign governments to keep economic sanctions against South Africa in place until the regime had conceded to democratic majority rule.

A State Department cable sent to the U.S. secretary of state from the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria, under the subject “Mandela takes tough public line on [then–South African President F.W.] De Klerk reforms,” advised U.S. government officials what to expect when Mandela spoke to U.S. audiences.

“Mandela spoke to the press on June 2 and June 3, previewing his likely stance in official meetings abroad,” the cable said. “He dismissed De Klerk’s reform program as largely rhetorical inasmuch as the pillars of apartheid remained, and called for the continuation of international pressures against the National Party government.”

Another cable highlighted the fact that Mandela had few people in his delegation, which led the U.S. ambassador to comment, “No doubt about who’s in charge.”

“We are struck by the thin composition of Mandela’s delegation abroad. This suggests to us Mandela’s dominance in the organization and the trust other ANC officials place in him,” the cable said. “[African National Congress treasurer Thomas] Nkobi’s presence suggests that fund-raising may be an important aspect of the trip.”

Note: This reporter is a co-plaintiff with Shapiro in several Freedom of Information Act lawsuits.

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