These CIA Torture Victims May Finally Have a Chance at Justice

These CIA Torture Victims May Finally Have a Chance at Justice

These CIA Torture Victims May Finally Have a Chance at Justice

A lawsuit filed on behalf of former “black site” prisoners is now scheduled to go to trial—but in seeking restitution, the detainees have had to relive their torment.                            


This past November, two days after the American presidential election, Suleiman Abdullah Salim presented himself at the US embassy in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, for a visa interview. He brought with him a bundle of supporting papers, many of them legal documents captioned Salim v. Mitchell—he’s the Salim—and one of them ordering him to appear in the United States before January 17, 2017, to give a deposition.

The defendants who were summoning him to be deposed are James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, the two contract psychologists who designed and helped execute the CIA’s “black site” torture program. Fourteen years ago Salim, who grew up on the Tanzanian island of Zanzibar, was working as a driver in Mogadishu, Somalia, when he was stopped by Somali gunmen and beaten so badly he was hospitalized. From the hospital he was taken to the airport and rendered to Kenya, where he was detained and interrogated for a week, and then he was dragged through another series of rendition flights that eventually delivered him to the CIA’s secret “Cobalt” prison near Kabul, Afghanistan. There, over the course of two months in the spring of 2003, Salim was subjected to a barrage of the techniques that Mitchell and Jessen claimed would leave anyone helpless to resist interrogation.

The CIA held Salim another 14 months after that “enhanced interrogation,” and then turned him over to the US military, which imprisoned him at Afghanistan’s Bagram Air Base for four more years. Finally, on August 17, 2008, a representative from the International Committee of the Red Cross handed Salim a memorandum from the Defense Department stating that he “has been determined to pose no threat to the United States Armed Forces or its interests,” and he was returned to Tanzania. That memo, too, was in the packet of documents he was prepared to show to the visa officer.

In 2014, the Senate Intelligence Committee confirmed that Salim was one of 39 men who had been subjected to Mitchell and Jessen’s Enhanced Interrogation Techniques as part of the CIA’s clandestine Detention and Interrogation program. For Salim, who had worked for years with local and international human-rights attorneys to document his ordeal, the release of the Executive Summary of the committee’s still-secret 6,700-page report both validated his account and opened an avenue to seek restitution in American courts. While senior CIA officials and agency employees are generally shielded from lawsuits, Mitchell and Jessen were independent contractors. The Senate report showed how central they had been in developing and implementing the CIA’s torture program, and how well they had been compensated for their efforts. Salim v. Mitchell, which the ACLU filed in October 2015 on behalf of Salim and two other casualties of the black-site torture program, seeks damages from the contract psychologists for aiding and abetting torture, non-consensual human experimentation, and war crimes.

It is daunting for anyone from an African country to apply for a visa to come to the United States, and the interview process can feel hostile and demeaning. But for Salim, a trip to a US embassy also meant coming face to face with representatives of the same government that had orchestrated his disappearance and torture. It meant asking for permission to travel to the United States not for pleasure or for business, but to be questioned under oath by lawyers for two men closely associated with that torture, and to be examined by doctors and psychiatrists those lawyers had hired.

Salim, who struggles with post-traumatic stress and depression, braced himself for his interview. But within minutes it was over, and the visa officer was informing him that his application was denied.

The same thing happened that same week to Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud at the American embassy in Istanbul. Ben Soud, who is Libyan, is one of Salim’s two co-plaintiffs in the lawsuit against Mitchell and Jessen. A prominent member of Libya’s anti-Gadhafi resistance in the 1990s, Ben Soud was living in exile in Peshawar, Pakistan, with his wife and daughter in April 2003 when their home was raided and he disappeared into CIA custody. He was held and tortured in Cobalt for a year, then transferred to another secret CIA prison, and then in August 2004 he was turned over to Gadhafi and imprisoned in Libya until the regime was overthrown in 2011. He now lives with his family in his home city of Misrata. Like Salim, Ben Soud had been summoned to be deposed by Mitchell and Jessen’s attorneys; because the United States shuttered its embassy in Tripoli in 2014, he needed to travel to Turkey for his visa interview. He, too, carried an order and detailed itinerary for his deposition, along with a sheaf of documents detailing a similarly brutal interrogation in the CIA’s Cobalt prison. His application was denied, but he was told he could try to apply again.

Salim took the ferry back to Zanzibar, and Ben Soud flew home to Misrata, Libya. Both submitted new visa applications, adding supporting documents to their packets. Salim returned to the embassy in Dar-es-Salaam and was rejected again. Ben Soud was this time refused a visa by the Turkish consulate in Misrata and could not even get back to Istanbul.

No other lawsuit against participants in the CIA’s post-9/11 torture program had made it as far as scheduling depositions; in all previous cases the executive branch, claiming that state secrets were at risk, convinced the courts to dismiss the suits before formal discovery began. But the Obama administration signaled early in Salim v. Mitchell that it would not invoke state secrets to scuttle the lawsuit outright, and the federal judge assigned to the case, 87-year-old Justin Quackenbush, kept a firm hand on the discovery schedule, with an eye toward a jury trial in his Spokane, Washington, courtroom this summer. Now the government was preventing Salim and Ben Soud from traveling to the United States for their depositions, and Mitchell and Jessen’s attorneys were balking at an offer from the men’s ACLU lawyers to have them deposed and examined by the defendants’ medical experts outside of the United States.

Quackenbush pressed ahead, ordering that the depositions could take place anywhere within 2,500 miles of the Eastern Seaboard, the distance attorneys for both sides were traveling to his courtroom in Spokane. For Steven Watt, an ACLU attorney who worked with Salim and Ben Soud to develop their case against Mitchell and Jessen, the challenge was now to find a country within 2,500 miles of New York and Washington that not only didn’t require visas for citizens of Libya and Tanzania, but that both men could reach without passing through any countries whose airports would require transit visas.

That country, it turned out, was the Caribbean island of Dominica. Known as a cruise and dive destination of unspoiled tropical beauty, Dominica is not often the setting for international legal proceedings. “I doubt there’s ever been a deposition taken there,” Watt said, laughing, when I asked.

But on January 22, Watt waited at the island’s single-runway airport for Ben Soud’s final connection to arrive. He had been traveling for the better part of two days, flying from his home in Misrata to Istanbul, where he spent the night in the Istanbul airport, and on to Paris, then Saint Martin, and now Dominica. The Air Antilles Express dropped through the notch in the hills and taxied to the tiny terminal. Ben Soud emerged in a business suit, looking utterly confused.

The question after “Where am I?” was “Where’s Suleiman?” Though they had overlapped briefly in the 24-hour darkness of Cobalt, they had no way of knowing that at the time. This strange rendezvous in Dominica was to be the first time they would meet.

But there would be no meeting here. As Ben Soud was starting his journey, Salim left his home in Zanzibar and took the ferry to Dar-es-Salaam; from there he was to fly to Abu Dhabi, and then, like Ben Soud, to Paris, Saint Martin, and Dominica. But a Tanzanian border official blocked Salim from boarding the Abu Dhabi flight, insisting, incorrectly, that he needed transit visas for France and Saint Martin. Salim returned home, and Watt scrambled to buy him a new ticket, this one adding a stop in Oman on the way to Abu Dhabi. Salim set out again the next day and made it as far as Abu Dhabi, but again he was prevented from completing his journey, this time by airline officials who held and questioned him so long that he missed the rest of his connecting flights. As Watt and Ben Soud were driving the mountain road from the airport to Dominica’s small capital city of Roseau, Salim was making his way back to Zanzibar, exhausted and dejected, sure that missing his deposition would mean his case would be dismissed.

Over the next week, in a room of Roseau’s Fort Young Hotel, Ben Soud went through two medical examinations and a lengthy psychological exam, and then two full days of questioning under oath by James Smith, one of the attorneys who is representing Mitchell and Jessen. On the second morning, Smith began to probe Ben Soud’s recollections of his interrogation in Cobalt, and a few hours in, speaking through an interpreter, Ben Soud described the worst phase of the torture:

Q: You said there were three stages while you were at Cobalt. Can you describe for me stage two?

A: After the end of the first stage, the head of interrogators came and told me that there would be a new interrogation and adopting methods more severe and more hard and in—and, actually, the second group adopted that for three weeks, and it was more cruel and more fierce.

Q: What was done to you during these three weeks?

A: During these three weeks that were the worst of all in Cobalt, I was shackled, hands and legs. I was being chained to a ring in the wall. The loud music, the very loud music continued. Food deprivation. No care for cleanliness. I was—the darkness.

They started to use new methods, including throwing me against the wall, torture by pouring icy water, slamming, punching, holding the jaw forcibly, insults, throwing insults, forcing me to walk on my—using my leg, and being hanged by the hands.

 In his book Enhanced Interrogation, James Mitchell insists that he and Bruce Jessen only interrogated the CIA’s highest-value detainees, and only under the direct supervision of CIA officials—and that because the two psychologists did not personally apply the techniques they devised to others who were tormented in the CIA black sites, they bear no responsibility for their torture. This coincides neatly with Mitchell and Jessen’s core defense in Salim v. Mitchell—a defense they have pursued by seeking classified documents that they say position them in the CIA’s chain of command and petitioning to depose senior CIA officials who oversaw their work. As an improbable and remarkable result, the discovery process has produced not just the first sworn public testimony of Mitchell and Jessen, but also sworn depositions from Jose Rodriguez, former director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, and John Rizzo, deputy counsel of the agency when the black sites were in operation.

Throughout Ben Soud’s deposition, Smith pressed this defense.

Q: Mr. Soud, so you understand, I’m not challenging that these things happened to you. Do you understand that? I’m not agreeing that they happened or disagreeing. Do you understand that?

A: Yes, I understand.

Q: What I’m trying to understand is why you believe that Jessen and Mitchell had anything to do with it. Do you understand that?

A: Yes.

Q: Now, the people who did these things to you were not Jessen and Mitchell, correct?

A: Yes.

Q: How do you know that the people who did these things to you were not acting on the orders of the CIA, completely unrelated to anything concerning Jessen and Mitchell?

A: All what I know is that what Dr. Mitchell has prepared was handed down to other people to be implemented and that I was one of those victims of this program.

 Toward the end of that second day, Smith turned to the lasting physical harms Ben Soud has enumerated in the lawsuit, which include chronic back and leg pain, sinus pain, headaches, and a range of trauma indicators including anxiety, fear, and recurring nightmares. Focusing on the nightmares, Smith asked Ben Soud if he was sure they had their source in Cobalt, and not in the six and a half years he had spent in a Libyan prison after the CIA had delivered him into the custody of the Gadhafi regime. Yes, Ben Soud said, I’m sure. He offered as an example a dream in which it was “as if I were still in my room, still being dragged to the interrogation room.”

Q: These people that are dragging you, how do you know that they weren’t from the Libya prison as opposed to from Cobalt?

A: The image that came to me was that of those people who wear masks and wearing black clothes.

Q: And in the Libyan prison, did they not wear masks and black clothes?

A: No.

Six weeks later, Suleiman Abdullah Salim was finally able to deliver his deposition. He had traveled freely to South Africa twice in recent years, so Judge Quackenbush extended his 2,500-mile zone; lawyers for both sides agreed to gather with the defendants’ medical experts in Johannesburg in March.

Worried about the toll that two visa refusals and two unsuccessful attempts to reach Dominica had taken on Salim, Steven Watt traveled to Tanzania to fly with him to Johannesburg. Salim was apprehensive as they set out, and paused in the Dar-es-Salaam airport to pray that this time he would arrive at his destination. But the anxiety seemed to recede when they landed and Salim could start to concentrate on the deposition itself.

“That’s when I really saw what this process meant for him,” Watt told me. “To go through what Suleiman had to go through just to be able to give a deposition says a lot about how crucial it is for these men to have their experience officially acknowledged and addressed—and how much courage and commitment that takes.”

Most people who have been tortured struggle to speak of their experiences at all, even to family members. This reluctance is one of the core legacies of torture, according to Katherine Porterfield, a staff psychologist with the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture.

“One of the hallmarks of this kind of torture-induced trauma is a profound desire not to return to that state of powerlessness and pain, and simply telling your story means you’re going to be reliving it and re-experiencing it,” she explains. That risk increases when the process of recounting the experience so closely mirrors the circumstances of the original trauma. “For people who have lived through this kind of interrogation-based torture, being questioned can actually recreate the conditions that led to their mistreatment and torture,” Porterfield says. “It’s not just the telling, but the way it feels to be answering repeated, adversarial questions.”

On March 14 and 15, after two days of medical examinations and a grueling psych evaluation, Salim was deposed in the borrowed conference room of a law office in suburban Johannesburg. James Smith again represented Mitchell and Jessen. He began by grilling Salim about his name, jobs, pseudonyms, and a false identity card he had used when he was a young man working in Kenya. Later, when Smith asked Salim what questions he was asked by an American interrogator just before his rendition to Afghanistan, Salim referred Smith back to that initial exchange. “It’s more the questions you asked me, where I was born, what I did, from where to—things like that,” he said simply. When a long inquiry into his attempts to secure a visa and to travel to Dominica led to a heated exchange between the attorneys, Salim pleaded, “Don’t be so harsh on me, like the other people that asked me question. Just be—go slow and I’ll answer the questions.”

In one surreal exchange, even the court’s Swahili interpreter struggled to distinguish the realms of the courtroom and the interrogation booth. “Do you know what an interrogatory is?” Smith asked Salim. “Can you just break the word a little bit, in layman’s terms?” the interpreter interjected. “To interrogate, is that what you said?”

 Q: I asked Mr. Salim if he knows what an interrogatory is.

Interpreter: Yeah, but I’m saying can you break the word for me.

Q: Break the word?

Interpreter: Interrogatory.

Q: Oh. An interrogatory is a formal question in—

Interpreter: Like interrogate?

Q: —America that needs to be answered under oath.

Interpreter: Okay.

 A few hours before that exchange, Smith had asked Salim to describe what happened during his interrogation in Cobalt, the prison that Salim, like others who were held there, calls simply Darkness for its most distinguishing feature. Salim hesitated, noting, “So many things happened, I don’t know where to begin.” Then, gathering himself, he offered a chilling litany. “I remember being put in a box,” he began. “I remember being hanged,” he said, gesturing with his hands over his head. He went on:

I remember being naked…on the ground in a plastic bag and water is being poured on me. And there was a plastic jug, plastic water jug being put—they were knocking my rectal area with it.

I remember being put on a table and then, I was tied around while being taken around.

I remember there were two boxes, they were—there’s one that was being put on the ground and there was one that was also in a standing position.

I remember being tied on the wall, handcuffed to the wall. I couldn’t go up or come down. I also remember being handcuffed and naked in the room with not any clothes on.

I remember being put on something like a hospital bed, my—my hands tied to the sides of the bed. They put something like an injection in me and I lost my conscious.

I remember, also, them putting a cloth around—tying a cloth around my neck and then, they were punching me on the wall, punching.

At the present time, I can’t recall anything; if I do, I will let you know.

 As in Ben Soud’s deposition, Smith challenged Salim repeatedly on whether he could connect Mitchell or Jessen directly to the suffering he described, and he probed Salim on the lasting harms of his torture. He kept pressing Salim to describe the pain he said he still suffers in his waist from being shackled to the wall, until Salim flared. “Maybe I need to tie you here so that—for one hour so you can feel the pain, if you want to know the pain,” Salim suggested.

Toward the end of the second day, Smith turned to one of the symptoms of Salim’s PTSD. “Do you experience flashbacks?” he asked. Yes, Salim answered, to his time in Darkness and afterwards in Bagram.

Q: Okay. When is the last time you had a flashback to Bagram?

A: Today.

Q: Can you describe for me what happened?

A: I—(translating.) I was seeing myself like I was in a cell in Bagram.

Q: And how long did that flashback last?

A: It comes and goes.

Q: How many times did it happen today?

A: One or two times.

Q: How long did the flashback last?

A: I don’t know how long it took.

Q: And do you experience any physical symptoms during this flashback?

A: It depends on what I’m remembering or thinking.

Q: Okay. And when is the last time you had a flashback to [D]arkness?

A: Right now.

If Cobalt lives in the bodies and the memories of the men the United States imprisoned and tortured there, for Obaidullah, the third plaintiff in Salim v Mitchell, it is an actual and constant physical presence. The still officially secret complex is about 11 miles from the young computer programmer’s office in the Afghan Ministry of Education. Somewhere on its grounds, or in the sere land surrounding the facility, his uncle is buried.

Obaidullah was 10 or 11—he’s not exactly sure how old he is—when the CIA started bringing prisoners to Cobalt. He and his extended family were living then in a refugee camp near Peshawar, Pakistan. One of his chores was to bring lunch every day to his uncle, who was working as a woodcutter. On October 28, 2002, that uncle, Gul Rahman, went to Islamabad for a medical checkup for allergies. The next day, a joint US-Pakistani military operation raided the house where he was staying, and Gul Rahman disappeared.

Through time, the family heard that he might have been taken to a prison near Bagram Air Base, so they asked the Red Cross in Kabul for information. The Red Cross told them there was no record that Rahman was ever imprisoned in Afghanistan, and referred them to the Red Cross in Pakistan. In 2005, Obaidullah’s father, Gul’s brother, wrote to Pakistan’s Office of Human Rights appealing for help. “Please let us inform about my brother, whether he is dead or alive,” he wrote. “Your information will be a state of patience to his innocent children and disabled wife.”

For almost a decade, the family lived in a condition that psychologists call “ambiguous loss.” Reports surfaced that a man had been killed during interrogation at the CIA prison near Bagram. A redaction mistake in a declassified US government document identified that man as Gul Rahman. But without formal confirmation and a body to bury and mourn, there was still the small hope that he might be alive. It was only in December 2014, when the US Senate released a summary of its exhaustive investigation of the CIA rendition and interrogation program, that the family learned in grim and emphatic detail how Gul Rahman had been tortured to death in the CIA’s Cobalt prison.

By then, Gul Rahman’s wife and four children and Obaidullah’s family of 11 had left the Peshawar camps and returned to Afghanistan. Obaidullah had earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in software engineering and had become the principal breadwinner for the extended family. By custom, that meant he had also assumed leadership of the family’s efforts to rectify the loss of his uncle. That responsibility has evolved from pleading for information to petitioning, still in vain, for the return of Gul Rahman’s remains, and finally, with the Senate report’s revelations, to co-filing the lawsuit against Mitchell and Jessen as Gul Rahman’s personal representative.

Like Ben Soud and Salim, Obaidullah was summoned to be deposed by Mitchell and Jessen’s attorneys in the United States in January. The US embassy in Kabul granted him a visa, and his deposition was scheduled for January 31 in New York.

Between the time he boarded a flight in Kabul and landed at JFK airport on Saturday morning, January 28, President Trump issued the first of his Muslim travel bans, an executive order titled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the U.S.” Dror Ladin, the ACLU attorney who went to meet Obaidullah’s flight, arrived at Terminal 4 as some of his colleagues and a swelling number of other volunteer immigration lawyers were turning any table they could find into a makeshift office. Reports were ricocheting around the terminal of passengers arriving from the target countries and being detained, their visas summarily canceled. Afghanistan was not on the order’s specific list of seven banned countries, but administration officials were hinting that the list could be expanded.

“I was waiting for Obaidullah to clear immigration, and I could hear other lawyers trying to find out where in the airport their Iraqi refugee clients were being held,” Ladin told me. “All I could think was, I hope Obaidullah’s not in that room. I hope he hasn’t traveled all this way for nothing.”

Obaidullah had been in the air for twelve hours, so he did not know to worry. He somehow skated through immigration, and his first impression of the travel ban was of stepping out into its young, self-organizing resistance. Fascinated, he watched local news in his hotel room through the weekend as the protests grew.

At around noon on Tuesday, as carts of donated cookies and pastries were being wheeled through the halls of the ACLU’s offices overlooking New York Harbor, Obaidullah was deposed in a stuffy interior conference room. This time attorney Brian Paszamant led the questioning on behalf of Mitchell and Jessen. He opened by probing Obaidullah about the process that led to his family’s participation in the lawsuit, and how he had prepared with them for the deposition.

“What did you discuss with these family members about your sitting for a deposition today?” Paszamant asked.

“There was different issues that we speak,” Obaidullah answered. “For example, reading the records that what kind of violation had happened to my uncle. We have spoke the violation that happened to my uncle, I spoke with the family, his wife and his daughter. And they told me to tell the government of America what happened to us.”

“What violations are you speaking of?” Paszamant asked Obaidullah a few minutes later.

“The first violation was beating him up,” he answered. “Making him restless, like not letting him sleep. Not feeding him water and food. And then keeping him in a cold place, showering him with cold water. And torturing him mentally and physically. Then putting the loudest music to his ear and making him deaf. Then lighting inside his eyes. It was all physically and mentally tortured until he was deceased or dead.”

Some five hours later, near the end of the deposition, Paszamant picked up this thread, asking Obaidullah what he hoped to achieve by being a plaintiff in this litigation. Obaidullah was just as blunt and matter-of-fact. “I want judgment and I want justice and I want those people who are involved in it to be [brought to justice],” he said.

Q: When you say that you want people responsible to be brought to justice, what do you mean, sir?

A: I believe that America has more attention to human rights. I want to know why this happened to my uncle. He was a simple person. He was just living his simple life. He was not a commander or a fighter.

 As you know, war is going in Afghanistan. Everywhere is the war. They arrested my uncle. They killed him and they didn’t even let us know. For ten years we didn’t even know about it. After ten years, we found out from the reports that he was killed. Until today, we don’t know what happened to him, but all we know is according to the report, where is his grave site and what happened to him. If they killed him. I wish they would let us know: Here is your dead body. Hold it up. At least present the dead body to us.

 My family was never informed that my uncle was dead. They kill and then they report again. They killed him and then after ten years they established a report that he is killed or dead.

Q: Who do you want brought to justice?

A: If I could do anything on CIA, that’s a separate issue. Or if I could or not do anything regarding our own CIA. The two doctors, why would they do such a thing, such an act? The two doctors, they’re doctors. They know about human rights. Why would they do such a thing?

 On May 5, 2017, the teams of lawyers who had met in New York, Roseau, and Johannesburg to depose Obaidullah, Ben Soud, and Salim, and in Philadelphia and Washington to take the depositions of Mitchell and Jessen and the CIA’s Jose Rodriguez and John Rizzo, gathered in Spokane for one of the last procedural hearings before Salim v. Mitchell goes to trial in September.

The gallery was sparse, but a number of reporters had dialed in to follow the proceedings. Judge Quackenbush opened the hearing with what he called “one or two morning thoughts” for those in the courtroom and those on the phone. He acknowledged the notoriety of the case, but lamented the tendency to situate this lawsuit against the two CIA contractors in the context of a now 15-year-long public debate about the efficacy and legality of the CIA’s post-9/11 interrogation program.

“This case is really about personal injury and wrongful death,” he said.

“We need to pay attention to the plaintiffs, who have allegedly been tortured, and in the case of Gul Rahman, killed at the hands of US government agents.” He decried the mountain of motions that has accumulated in the case and the compounding attorney’s fees and expenses, and pointed out that because the psychologists’ contract with the CIA included legal indemnification, taxpayers were paying both the US government’s and Mitchell and Jessen’s legal expenses. He nudged the lawyers toward settlement talks because, as he reminded them near the end of the hearing, “all good cases settle.”

But if that does not happen, Salim v. Mitchell is now scheduled to go to trial in September. When it does, Judge Quackenbush noted pointedly, “I would assume that in this courtroom, before a jury, the plaintiffs will be on the stand testifying to where, when, and what happened to them.”

After that hearing, I reached out to Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud and Suleiman Abdullah Salim to ask about the prospect of applying for visas and traveling to Spokane in September.

“I was so optimistic and hopeful when I got the news that I was being called to America for a deposition,” Ben Soud told me, “and I was so demoralized when my visa application was denied.”

“When I went to the US embassy I was thinking, ‘After all the injustice and cruelty and humiliation, the day has finally come to go to America not as a prisoner but as a witness,’” he said. “I knew I was being given an opportunity that hasn’t been given to others who suffered what I suffered—and that has given me a sense of responsibility to be the voice of the other prisoners. I want to carry the truth of The Darkness to the American people. I ask myself every day, if this case fails, does it mean that justice has failed?”

For Salim, the goal remains as simple, and the process as fearful and painful, as when he first reached out to a local lawyer in Dar-es-Salaam a few years after the United States returned him to Tanzania.

“I just want to tell what’s true before the court,” he said.

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