Nicholas Daniloff's Exclusive Story; Thirteen Days in a KGB Prison

This story originally appeared in the October 13, 1986, issue of U.S.News & World Report.

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Time in Lefortovo was mental torture. Over the next two weeks I would spend 30 hours in interrogation. The colonel never raised his voice or pounded the table. He was never abusive or overtly threatening. He was a pro. He played with my emotions, posing alternatively as a "good cop" and a "bad cop." He controlled all information that reached me. He controlled my food, my exercise, my life. But the time I was freed, he had made me feel guilt where there was none.

He tried to promote a fatherly relationship with me. He would offer me tea or coffee to drink. Once he said, "You don't have to worry that I'm going to poison you." And I said, "I'm sure that you're not." Then he would go through a procedure of brewing coffee. In the Soviet Union they have sort of a filament that you can put in water and bring it to a boil quickly. Then he'd bring out cookies and candy and put them on the table and encourage me to drink and eat and feel at home.

At the same time he was always intimidating because of the situation. The bare brown walls of Room 215, where the interrogations took place, enclosed me. I sat in a straight-back chair with a small cushion. Sergadeyev was behind the T-shaped desk that is typical of Moscow's bureaucratic offices. Behind him was a Soviet emblem. Beside him was a spittoon. He smoked a lot, and then he'd lean over and spit into that spittoon from time to time.

"I am not a spy," I insisted over and over. It did no good.

"What intelligence school did you finish?"

I said I was only a journalist who tried to do his job.

The colonel had studied my character in advance, even saying he knew I was an emotional person. Once he cited a story I had written, saying, "That article you did on the KGB had to have been dictated by your CIA masters. You know too much." I got my information from books and interviews with Soviet citizens who had experience with the KGB. But no matter what I said, there was no way to convince him of my innocence. Gently he would present once more the planted evidence labeling me as an American agent. As brothers in the trade, he argued, we had to face facts. "I know you're a professional spy. I can tell by the calm way in which you conduct yourself." Another time, after Ruth had visited, he said that because she didn't weep and roll on the floor and was very tough with him in answering questions he was convinced we both were spies.

The most chilling moment was when they brought in a general from the Military Justice Service. He was tall and heavyset, overbearing and dour. He stood about 6 feet away and read the terms of the indictment: "Espionage is a serious state crime that carries a heavy penalty all the way up to death." It seemed to annoy him that I just sat there silently. "Doesn't it bother you that we are charging you with this serious crime?"

"Of course, it bothers me." I spoke in a low, calm voice because it was an effort just to speak. My throat was dry. I felt palpitations of the heart, butterflies all over and breathless. I was determined to stay in control of myself because I wanted the opportunity to demonstrate my innocence. But I could never get away from the overall horror of the situation. Over 10 interrogation days I averaged maybe 3 hours in that chair at a session. I'm not sure of times, because you're not allowed to have a watch in your cell. They try to disorient you by preventing you from knowing what time it is. It all proceeded at a snail's pace.

The colonel would write out his questions and my replies in longhand on brown sheets of paper. At the end of every day, under Soviet law, I was required to sign these "protocols." Sometimes I got him to agree to let me modify or improve my answers. Sometimes he formulated my answer better than I had done and made a better defense. Then I would ask myself, "Is he ingratiating himself with me? Or is it that I'm making some headway in convincing him of my innocence?" Once he told me not to worry about the questions, just the answers. I said, "That's not right. Anything I answer will make it look as if I'm acknowledging the guilt implied in your question." And he did, in fact, change the question. I never signed any document that said that I agreed with the charges.