Back in 1990, FAIR (Extra!, 3/90) noted that the media coverage of Nelson Mandela's release from prison failed to mention there was strong evidence that the CIA had tipped off South African authorities to Mandela's location in 1962, resulting in his arrest.
So with coverage of Mandela's death dominating the media now, can the story of the CIA's role in Mandela's capture be told?
The link between the CIA and Mandela's capture--reported by CBS Evening News (8/5/86) and in a New York Times column by Andrew Cockburn (10/13/86)--was almost entirely unmentioned in media discussions of his death.
There were a few exceptions. MSNBC host Chris Hayes mentioned it on December 5 ("We know there's reporting that indicates the CIA actually helped the South African police nab Mandela the first time he was captured"). On Melissa Harris-Perry's MSNBC show (12/7/13), Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman brought it up:
The US devoted more resources to finding Mandela to hand over to the apartheid forces than the apartheid forces themselves. It was the CIA that actually located Mandela, and he was driving dressed up as a chauffeur when he was stopped, and he was arrested and ultimately serves 27 years in prison.
And on CNN's Outfront (12/6/13), Cornel West told guest host Jake Tapper, "Keep in mind, though, Brother Jake, the CIA colluded with the apartheid regime to find Nelson Mandela when he was disguised as a chauffeur in 1961."
So the lesson might be that the kinds of guests rarely included in corporate media are the ones more likely to bring up this history.
In the New York Times' long obituary (12/6/13), Bill Keller presented it as a story that is yet to be confirmed: "There have been allegations, neither substantiated nor dispelled, that a CIA agent had tipped the police officers who arrested Mr. Mandela." He reiterated that on NPR's Morning Edition (12/6/13): "I have not seen utterly convincing confirmation or refutation of it."
Keller--who was convinced about Iraq's WMDs--has presumably read the accounts of CIA involvement in Mandela's capture, including a Cox News Service report (6/10/90) of a retired CIA official admitting that a CIA operative told him of the operation ("We have turned Mandela over to the South African security branch") the day it happened.
So with Mandela's death making headlines everywhere, there is still very little coverage of this part of the Mandela story. One place you can find it, though--the New York Times letters to the editor section today (12/10/13), where this appears under the headline "CIA and Mandela's Arrest":
To the Editor:
Nelson Mandela’s membership in the South African Communist Party in the early 1960s was acknowledged by the Communist Party itself last week, confirming the findings of my own historical research, reported by Bill Keller ("Nelson Mandela, Communist," column, Dec. 8).
Perhaps the United States government will now confirm the role of the Central Intelligence Agency in Mr. Mandela's arrest in August 1962, which is also indicated by my research. It was the height of the Cold War, and it was all a long time ago, but the truth still counts.
Amsterdam, December 9, 2013
"The truth still counts" shouldn't just guide government decisions about what it chooses to reveal about its own history. It's something journalists should consider too. Much of the coverage of Mandela is focused on his remarkable ability to forgive his opponents. It would be especially useful for US media to spell out which US government actions might have to be forgiven.