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The uses of confession

By Jeff Sparrow - posted Friday, 30 March 2007

In 1938, Nikolai Bukharin stood up in a Moscow courtroom and confessed. “I plead guilty,” he said, “to … the sum total of crimes committed … irrespective of whether or not I knew of, whether or not I took direct part, in any particular act.”

If the breadth of that admission (“Whether or not I knew or took part”) recalls the recent and remarkable statements by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, one should not be surprised. According to Michael Otterman’s new book American Torture, the techniques now employed by CIA interrogators were developed in emulation of the Eastern Bloc and its show trials.

In 1948, the Stalinist dictators in Hungary put Jozsef Cardinal Mindszenty in the dock. A fierce opponent of the regime, Mindszenty had previously left his supporters a note, assuring them that any confession would be “forged or false”.


Two months later, he stood up in court.

“I am guilty in principle and in detail,” he said, “of most of the accusations made”.

The Mindszenty affair convinced the American security forces that the Soviet Bloc had mastered “mind-control”, a technique that the CIA duly tried to master through bizarre experiments with drugs, hypnosis and even brain surgery. After years of trial and error (in Vietnam, Latin America and elsewhere), they established what Stalin’s jailers already knew. Sleep deprivation, isolation, stress positions, physical violence, continuous interrogation, psychological manipulation: a combination of these eventually break the strongest detainee.

For example, Nikolai Krestinsky, one of Bukharin’s co-accused, at first denied every accusation.

The next day, he shuffled out again.

“I fully and completely admit that I am guilty of all the gravest charges brought against me personally,” he said tonelessly. “I admit my complete responsibility for the treason and treachery I have committed.”


If Krestinsky changed his mind after a single evening, it is entirely understandable that, after four years in an undivulged location, Mohammed should admit, not only to 9-11, but to the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing and the Bali nightclub attack, attempts to kill Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and the Pope, and plans to destroy the Empire State Building, Sears Tower, Heathrow Airport, Big Ben and the US embassy in Canberra.

Indeed, the little we know about Mohammed’s treatment illustrates just how well his captors have learned from history. According to journalist Ron Suskind, interrogators told him that, if he refused to talk, his children, also in US custody, would be killed - precisely the technique that Stalin successfully employed on Lev Kamenev, a key defendant in the Moscow Trial of 1936.

The same methods: the same outcome. And to what end?

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About the Author

Jeff Sparrow is the editor of Overland and the author of, most recently, Communism: A Love Story (Melbourne University Press, 2007).

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Jeff Sparrow
Related Links
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Verbatim Transcript of Combatant Status Review Tribunal Hearing ISN 10024

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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