How the ACLU Came to Publish a Powerful Piece of Investigative Journalism

“Out of the Darkness” is not an easy story to read. It chronicles how two psychologists who had previously devoted their careers to training US troops to resist abusive interrogation tactics teamed up with the CIA to devise a torture program and experiment on human beings. The story is a torrent of information artfully webbed into a fluid narrative, fleshed out with specific, vivid details. It has all the elements we’ve come to expect from strong investigative longform journalism, albeit from an unlikely outlet: The American Civil Liberties Union.

One doesn’t typically think of the ACLU as a journalism outlet, so I reached out to the story’s author, Noa Yachot, to hear more about how the piece came about, and the ACLU’s role as publisher (the story was also syndicated on Medium). Yachot is a communications strategist at the ACLU, and she spoke to Longreads via email.

How did the ACLU decide to become a publisher of original journalism?

I actually think we’ve been doing journalism for years, and not just through our reports. We have a very active blog where we publish shorter pieces on major civil liberties developments. A lot of that content stems from primary documents we get our hands on through litigation or other work we do on the ground all over the country to investigate and respond to civil liberties violations. We also work with journalists extensively—in this case as well, we worked with the Guardian to publish the documentary that came out of the project, which is embedded in the long piece. But it was important for us to provide a full account in a way that reflects our work on the issue, and this format made the most sense. I do think that recent nonprofit experiments in longform (like this one by Brookings) offered a bit of reassurance that there was some logic to what we were doing. In terms of form, we’ve done something similar before, on discriminatory policing in Minneapolis—the main difference being that in that case, we had staggering statistics we visualized and built a story around. In this case, our clients were the story.

Can you tell me a little bit about how this specific piece came about?

The idea for the piece came about some time after ACLU attorneys Steven Watt and Dror Ladin began putting together the lawsuit we filed last week against James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, the psychologists who designed the CIA torture program. Molly Kaplan, our in-house photographer and videographer, and I traveled to meet with Suleiman Abdullah Salim, a survivor of the program and plaintiff in the suit. We heard his story and recorded an interview with him that we intended to turn into a short documentary to accompany the suit’s filing. Once we started processing what he had told us and reviewing the footage, it became clear that folding his ordeal into the bigger story of the CIA program required more real estate than a short evocative video would allow. Taken with the fact that we also had Mohamed Ben Soud’s incredible story, plus his drawings and stunning photographs of both of them, we knew we needed to do more, that these people could have a real impact if their stories were told right.

The ACLU’s call for accountability for torture is a signature issue for the organization. Our lawyers and lobbyists fight the legal and policy fights in court and in Congress, but public opinion is a critical front, too—we know we aren’t going to galvanize people who are new to the issue without giving them a full picture of the horrors wrought by our government in the name of national security. We had something of a perfect confluence—an incredibly powerful human story of suffering and healing; terrible wrongs that also have human faces (in this particular case Mitchell and Jessen, though we have brought other suits against other individuals involved in the program); and a wealth of beautiful imagery. And we felt that those elements made for a narrative that would surely affect people, even those who have heard the torture story before. I think it worked.

What was the editorial process like for “Out of the Darkness”?

Since the project is tied to a very serious lawsuit, accuracy had even more weight than usual. So we had Suleiman and Mohamed’s ACLU lawyers review the piece to make sure I got the facts of the plaintiffs’ stories and the torture program right. The piece would never have come about without Steven and Dror’s painstaking research to bring the suit. Matt Harwood, our senior writer/editor, also reviewed for style. And I worked throughout with our talented graphic designer, Neil Shovelin, who worked his magic to make the final product happen.

How big is the team producing journalism at the ACLU? Do they operate as part of the overall communications strategy, or more independently?

All of our many lawyers and advocates around the country research, investigate, and write for the public at large. I would say a dozen or so of us in the communications department have stricter editorial functions—writing original content and producing/editing content coming from our lawyers. The team producing journalism at the ACLU also executes communications strategy more broadly.

In some ways, there’s a refreshing clarity to a story told by an advocacy organization, in that you know exactly what it might be arguing for. But do you see any journalistic pitfalls in the larger trend of nonprofits as publisher?

It’s important to understand the source of whatever journalism you consume – every reporter, editor, and even publisher comes at a story with his or her background and perspective. The ACLU enjoys a level of respect that allows a wide array of readers to trust the credibility of our reporting, and we have quite a few former journalists on staff who bring a reporter’s sensibility and subject our work to a level of journalistic rigor that I think is quite unique. We put a premium on both truth and transparency. That’s why there was no question we’d make clear in the piece, for example, that we represent Suleiman, the protagonist of our story. It’s also no secret that the ACLU demands accountability for CIA torture – then again, so does the likes of the New York Times editorial board.

Read the “Out of the Darkness”