Washington editor for Harper’s magazine. In 1986, he wrote in The New York Times about the CIA’s involvement in the capture of Nelson Mandela. His latest piece, on John Kerry and U.S. foreign policy, called "Secretary of Nothing," is out now in Harper’s magazine.
As South Africa prepares to hold a state funeral for Nelson Mandela, we look at how the CIA helped the South African government track down and capture Mandela in 1962. In 1990, the Cox News Service quoted a former U.S. official saying that within hours after Mandela’s arrest a senior CIA operative named Paul Eckel admitted the agency’s involvement. Eckel was reported as having told the official, "We have turned Mandela over to the South African security branch. We gave them every detail, what he would be wearing, the time of day, just where he would be. They have picked him up. It is one of our greatest coups." Several news outlets have reported the actual source of the tip that led to the arrest of Mandela was a CIA official named Donald Rickard. On Thursday, Democracy Now! attempted to reach Rickard at his home in Colorado. On two occasions, a man who picked up the phone hung up when we asked to speak with Donald Rickard. The activist group RootsAction has launched a campaign to urge the CIA to open its files on Mandela and South Africa, and the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting has questioned why corporate media outlets have largely ignored the story. We speak to journalist Andrew Cockburn, who first reported on the CIA link to Mandela’s arrest in 1986 in The New York Times.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: As South Africa prepares to hold a state funeral for Nelson Mandela, we end today’s show looking back at what happened on the day of August 5th, 1962, when South African police captured Mandela. On that day, Mandela was arrested while traveling disguised as a chauffeur. He would be held in jail for the next 27 years. On Tuesday, President Obama referenced Mandela’s time in jail during his speech at the memorial.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: He would endure a brutal imprisonment that began in the time of Kennedy and Khrushchev, and reached the final days of the Cold War. Emerging from prison, without the force of arms, he would, like Abraham Lincoln, hold his country together when it threatened to break apart.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: While Obama referenced the Kennedy administration in his memorial, he made no mention of the multiple reports that the CIA, under Kennedy, tipped off the apartheid South African regime in 1962 about Mandela’s whereabouts. In 1990, the Cox News Service quoted a former U.S. official saying that within hours after Mandela’s arrest, a senior CIA operative named Paul Eckel admitted the agency’s involvement. Eckel was reported as having told the official, quote, "We have turned Mandela over to the South African security branch. We gave them every detail, what he would be wearing, the time of day, just where he would be. They have picked him up. It is one of our greatest coups."
AMY GOODMAN: Several news outlets have reported the actual source of the tip that led to the arrest of Mandela was a CIA official named Donald Rickard. On Thursday, Democracy Now! attempted to reach Rickard at his home in Colorado. On two occasions, a man who picked up the phone hung up when we asked to speak with Donald Rickard. Last year, Rickard denied the reports in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, but refused to talk about his time in South Africa.
Meanwhile, the activist group RootsAction has launched a campaign to urge the CIA to open its files on Mandela and South Africa.
We go now to Andrew Cockburn. He first reported on the CIA link to Mandela’s arrest in 1986 in The New York Times. He’s now the Washington editor for Harper’s magazine. His latest piece, on John Kerry and U.S. foreign policy, is called "Secretary of Nothing." It’s out now in Harper’s.
Andrew, welcome back to Democracy Now!
ANDREW COCKBURN: Good morning.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what you found out in the mid-’80s. At this point, Nelson Mandela had been imprisoned for over 20 years.
ANDREW COCKBURN: That’s right. He had been—I found out—I reported that he had been—as you mentioned, that he had been arrested, thanks to a tip from the CIA, while disguised as a chauffeur. He was actually—what I had heard at the time was he was actually on his way to meet an undercover CIA, an American diplomat who was actually a CIA official. So it made it rather easy for them to alert the South Africans where to find him.
I mentioned—I thought it was particularly interesting to report when I did in 1986, because at that point it was just when the sanctions were being introduced over—voted through by the Congress over President Reagan’s veto. So, and I had noticed that in the sanctions legislation, it said there should be no contact, official contact, with the South African military, and so on and so forth, except when intelligence required that, you know, they did have to have contact. So it was ongoing, this unholy relationship, which had led to Mandela being arrested and locked up for all those years, continued on through the ’60s, through the ’70s, through the ’80s, absolutely flourished, with the—for example, the NSA routinely handing over intercepts of the ANC to the South African secret police. And it was absolutely outrageous.
AMY GOODMAN: This is the National Security Agency that is, of course, the subject of so much global controversy right now, the NSA gathering this intelligence to give to the apartheid regime.
ANDREW COCKBURN: That’s right. I mean, it was—it was just absolutely routine. And, you know, we have to—this was all—maybe they would have done it anyway, but it was certainly in the Cold War context. I mean, there was—it’s hard to remember now what a sort of lather people got into about, you know, the Soviet threat to the trade routes. And there was a naval base, African naval base—or there is one at Simon’s Town, near the Cape. And there was, I remember, sort of the right—the defense lobby were continually going on about the terrible threat of the Soviets maybe getting hold of, you know, Simon’s Town, seizing vital facilities.
And it was an absolute—I mean, people, not surprising—well, people have sort of forgotten just how—what a Cold War battleground southern Africa was. Not only did they turn over Mandela, but they had this very close relationship. U.S. military intelligence cooperated very closely with South African military intelligence, giving them information about what was going on, what they were collecting in the rest of southern Africa. And, in fact, you know, the two countries—CIA and the South Africans collaborated on, you know, assisting the UNITA in the horrible civil war in Angola that went on for years and years with thousands of people dying. So, you know, this wasn’t just a flash in the pan, the tip-off that led to the coordination on the arrest of Mandela. It was absolutely a very deep, very thorough relationship that went on for decades.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, in that vein, I wanted to ask you about the 1996 report by Jeff Stein in Salon that the CIA was involved in sabotaging the ANC for years.
ANDREW COCKBURN: That’s right.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Stein quotes Mike Leach, a former South African intelligence operative who worked closely with the CIA, and Leach claimed that the CIA shared the recipe for a prussic acid, a, quote, "clear compound which, if inhaled, would give a massive coronary. If a doctor’s not looking for [prussic] acid he’ll put (the cause of death) down to natural causes." Another trick, Stein writes, was to, quote, "launder anti-apartheid T-shirts in a fiberglass solution and hand them out to demonstrators, who would soon be convulsed in uncontrollable itching." The CIA reportedly also offered training in bugging and wiretaps.
ANDREW COCKBURN: Well, that’s right. It shows that, you know, this is the agency that gave us the exploding cigar sent to Fidel Castro, or designed to be sent to Fidel Castro. You know, the sort of fascination with these rather puerile tricks went on and, yeah, were considered. I’d never heard any report that they actually did manage to give anyone a coronary or cause them frantic itching, but it was certainly, certainly in the scheme.
I mean, there was, you know, the CIA—and the other side of it is, of course, the CIA was meanwhile spying on the South Africans and had very good report on the, for instance, the South African nuclear program and the collaboration, the very active collaboration, of the Israelis in that program, which they fed back to Washington, when of course nothing was ever done about it. So, you know, they knew perfectly well what was going on, but no action was ever taken.
AMY GOODMAN: Andrew Cockburn, you write in your 1986 piece that the clause in the new law, the comprehensive anti-sanctions—the comprehensive anti-apartheid sanctions bill that was introduced by Ron Dellums, the clause in it exempted intelligence cooperation from sanctions. That’s very important.
ANDREW COCKBURN: That’s right. I mean, that was slipped in—well, not slipped, I don’t know—inserted, obviously, in the legislation by the intelligence people here. Even though they may have regretted the whole imposition of sanctions anyway, they made sure that their unholy relationship was ongoing. And this, you know, 1986, and as I said, we know—we saw the fruits of it ongoing through the rest of that decade with the war in Angola. I mean, it was a huge operation that people have completely forgotten about now.
AMY GOODMAN: Andrew, we have to wrap up, but the Philadelphia journalist and professor Linn Washington wrote a piece this week, "Obama Failed to Deliver Long-Overdue Apology to Mandela." Your thoughts, as we wrap?
ANDREW COCKBURN: Well, I think, yeah, he did, certainly. And it would be nice if, you know, there was some acknowledgment of just how—you know, of the relationship that helped sustain apartheid for all those years. I mean, it couldn’t—I don’t think it would have existed or survived with such force, let alone keeping—you know, sending Mandela to jail, if it hadn’t had such thoroughgoing support from this end, from here in Washington.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Andrew Cockburn, I want to thank you for being with us. And, of course, President Obama has continually talked about the inspiration Nelson Mandela was in his own life and activism. Andrew Cockburn, Washington editor for Harper’s magazine, in 1986 wrote a piece about the CIA’s involvement in the capture of Nelson Mandela. His latest piece, on John Kerry and U.S. foreign policy, which we hope to talk to you about at a future time, "Secretary of Nothing," it’s out now in Harper’s.