Depending on whom you ask, Ryan Shapiro is either the country’s “FOIA superhero” or a “threat to national security.”
Perhaps more neutrally, the Justice Department called him the “most prolific” requester of Freedom of Information Act documents. He even filed at a pace of two a day during one period in 2011.
Among the records Shapiro requested are those concerning the potential involvement of the NSA, the FBI, the DIA, and the CIA in the 1962 arrest of Nelson Mandela — which led to the then anti-apartheid leader’s 28-year incarceration. The allegations of these agencies’ involvement in Mandela’s arrest have circulated widely for years, with little documentary evidence to this day. But if Shapiro has it his way, that may be about to change.
Today Shapiro filed a lawsuit against three of those agencies — he had previously sued the CIA — over their failure to comply with his requests for their records.
The NSA declined Shapiro’s requests for documents, citing “national security,” and refused to acknowledge whether these documents existed in the first place. The agencies were not immediately available for comment to VICE News.
The FBI called Shapiro’s dissertation on the policing of animal rights activists in the US a “threat to national security.” (They also called animal rights activism itself the “number one domestic terrorism threat.”)
Shapiro, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology PhD candidate, transparency advocate, and animal rights activist, wants to understand why the US government viewed the recently deceased South African icon as a threat to national security — so much so that he remained on the US terror watch list until 2008, long after he was released from jail, elected South Africa’s president and awarded a Nobel Peace prize.
But Shapiro also hopes his lawsuit will shed light on the “crisis of secrecy” he says we are facing in this country. He wants more people to demand the information they have a right to, and if federal agencies won’t comply, he wants those with access to it to leak it.
VICE News caught up with Shapiro on Tuesday. Here’s what he told us.
VICE News: More than half a century has passed since Mandela’s arrest. Why would the federal agencies you cited in your lawsuit still try to keep that information from the public?
Ryan Shapiro: I think there are tricky issues at play. The first is that it will be significantly embarrassing for there to be documentary evidence of the intelligence community’s role in the 1962 arrest of Mandela, leading to his decades of incarceration. There’s been very credible information supporting that, but we don’t have hard documentary evidence, and the CIA has never commented on it and refuses to comment on it, so I do think it will be significantly embarrassing. But I’m not interested in embarrassing the United States. We as a nation need to foster a broader understanding of national security, and when in the name of national security the US government both overtly and covertly aligns itself with the apartheid state and against heroic freedom fighters for racial justice … Not only in 1962 but also keeping in mind that Mandela was on the US terror watch list until 2008, that kind of myopic understanding of national security has devastating consequences. And those consequences, and that understanding of national security are again prevailing in post 9/11 America. Also in terms of targeting of political protesters at home, whether they are animal rights, anti-war or Occupy protesters.
VICE News: So are you hoping that by drawing on a historical example of the US government targeting what it believes are national security threats, we might learn something about its targets today?
Shapiro: Exactly. Mandela today is almost universally held as a heroic freedom fighter, and of course rightly so. We as a nation need to reconsider what we mean by national security, when we view siding with the apartheid state as somehow in the American security’s interest. As Judge Murray Gurfein said in his ruling against the Nixon administration’s infamous attempt to prevent the New York Times from publishing the 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 that ruling, I think we need to foster a broader conception of national security. Democracy cannot meaningfully function without an informed citizenry, and such a citizenry is impossible without broad public access to information about the operations of government. FOIA is sadly broken. The notion that the records of government are the property of the people is radically democratic, but it is broken in practice. We are experiencing a crisis of secrecy, and the various intelligence agencies’ responses to my FOIA requests is evidence of that. But the recent AP report that the Obama administration invoked national security to censor or deny FOIA requests more than ever is also evidence of that.
VICE News: So this is not just about Mandela. You also called on the public to demand more government transparency, saying, “If you see something, leak something.”
Shapiro: People are talking more about the Mandela part, which of course is very important, I’m very happy that that is happening and that they’re talking about the FBI’s response. But “see something, leak something” is the thing that people aren’t talking about as much. The second part, where I’m publicly advocating for leaking, I would be very psyched to see that get more attention as the focus of the story rather than the peripheral element. [I’m doing this] to talk about the specific Mandela issues, but also to highlight the broader crisis of secrecy that we are experiencing. FOIA is one of the most underappreciated elements of the American experiment. The notion that the records of government are the property of the people and all we need to do to get them is to ask for them is democratic, but FOIA is broken.
VICE News: Are you encouraging more people to demand access to government information?
Shapiro: Not only. The US intelligence community is deeply allergic to the Freedom of Information Act. It is fair to say that the intelligence community does nearly everything in its power to avoid compliance with the Freedom of Information Act. So it’s not just that we need more people to make FOIA requests, because the agencies are blatantly violating federal law, flagrantly and consistently violating federal law. If we can’t get the records that way, we need to get the records one way or another; democracy can’t function without an informed citizenry. So if the government is not going to tell us, and if they are going to violate FOIA, the only way to get it is for people to leak it. I am calling on all citizens with access to unreleased records pertaining to illegal, unconstitutional, or immoral government activities to return those records to their rightful owners, the American people.
VICE News: Will the American people care enough? Did the leak of NSA files by Edward Snowden suggest the American public is interested, beyond the initial uproar, in applying sustained pressure on government to be more transparent?
Shapiro: It doesn’t take that many people, it just takes the right ones. When [Daniel] Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers, that was just one man — or two of them, Anthony Russo did it with him. The Pentagon Papers’ release really showed the whole world that the US President and the Department of Defense had lied to the American people about the war in Vietnam. And the release of the Pentagon Papers was absolutely instrumental in ultimately ending the war in Vietnam. Edward Snowden himself is just one person, and yet prior to the Snowden revelations, there were certainly some of us who were discussing these issues, but there were very few people listening. Now, after the Snowden revelations, people are talking about it, people are interested. So, will the American people respond to the call? I don’t know. But it doesn’t take many to alter this situation. That’s part of the power of information, especially in the digital age, it’s how quickly it can spread. Ellsberg and Russo had the reports photocopied, thousands of pages in what we would now consider antique Xerox machines. Think of how many more pages Snowden was so easily able to get out. As Harvard historian of science Peter Galison has demonstrated, the universe of classified knowledge now far exceeds the universe of unclassified knowledge. That’s a staggering thought. There is far more classified knowledge in the world than unclassified. And that disparity grows all the time.
VICE News: They called you a “FOIA superhero.” How do you feel about that, and do you feel alone in your battle for more FOIA compliance?
Shapiro: There are some journalists who aggressively use the Freedom of Information Act. Jason Leopold is an example, I collaborate with him on some projects. There are a handful of others. But it’s not just FOIA. The project all around is to obtain records about the operations of government and to disseminate those records to the people. Obviously there are different risks associated with leaking documents, but the open government community and the transparency community is strong and growing. There are a number of terrific organizations, journalists, activists, and scholars — all pushing towards the pro-transparency, anti-secrecy project. It would of course be nice to have more.
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi