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.

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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