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.