Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) doctoral candidate Ryan Shapiro filed a lawsuit in a Washington, D.C. federal court March 25 against several U.S. intelligence agencies for their failure to cough up documents related to world-renowned anti-apartheid activist and former South African President Nelson Mandela.

The National Security Agency (NSA), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) have not complied with Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for records about the spy agencies’ alleged involvement in Mandela’s 1962 arrest and his placement on the U.S. terror watch list until 2008, among other things, Shapiro said.

“I think it will be explosive if we can get evidence that the CIA was involved in Mandela’s arrest,” the 38-year-old social rights activist said.

“It is well-known that the U.S. government has a sad history of suppressing movements for social justice at home and abroad for a very long time” in the interest of “national security,” he added. “ this blinkered understanding of national security and the actions taken in its name have been hidden from the American public.”

Shapiro, a historian who focuses on political functioning of national security and the policing of dissent, said while it is generally accepted—though unproven—that U.S. spy agencies supported the apartheid regime in Africa and, specifically, were involved in the freedom fighter’s arrest, much of that remained unreported by the press, even in the torrent of coverage following Mandela’s death in December.

Shapiro added that his FOIA requests are part of an attempt to fill in the holes of public knowledge. However, the NSA, for example, invoked the Espionage Act in their denial of his request, saying that even acknowledging whether those documents exist is a “classified matter…to be kept secret in the interest of national defense.”

Such a lack of transparency is harmful to American democracy, Shapiro argued.

“Government records are the property of the people. In the interest of democracy, we have to fight against this myopic vision of national security and the government’s obsession with secrecy,” he said.

“Democracy cannot meaningfully exist without an informed citizenry,” he continued. “I want to promote a national security based on the idea that we are more secure as a nation when we know what our government is doing.”

Shapiro said he expects his campaign to increase transparency is going to be grueling.

“The American intelligence community is deeply hostile to transparency in general and the Freedom of Information Act in particular,” he said, later adding about his legal complaint, “It is going to be a fight… it is going to be a long fight.”