Like so many people in Oceania, Jones, Aaronson, and Rutherford have been crushed beneath the wheels of the totalitarian system. Once upon a time, they were fanatical Party leaders during the Revolution; but now, they're dead, executed as traitors for having sold military secrets to the enemy.
As it turns out, the three men were completely innocent of their alleged crimes. Winston Smith knows this, because, when he's working in the Ministry of Truth one day, he sees an article in a Party publication that shows the three men attending a function on the exact same day they were supposed to be in Siberia selling secrets.
The three men may have confessed to these crimes, but those confessions were almost certainly extracted under torture. As we will see later on when Winston himself is tortured, this is a common method used by the Party to get confessions. Confessions add a touch of plausibility to criminal charges, as most people instinctively believe that no one would confess to a crime unless they really were guilty of it.
In any case, the evidence of the men's innocence is potentially very damaging to the Party, as Winston immediately realizes. He knows that the article proving their innocence is political dynamite. But of course, the question arises as to how this crucial piece of information is to be disseminated.
In chapter 7, Winston reflects on the only time he witnessed undeniable evidence that the Party forced individuals to make false confessions during the earlier purges by describing a situation involving former Party leaders Jones, Aaronson, and Rutherford. Jones, Aaronson, and Rutherford were original Party leaders before and during the Revolution. Similar to many original leaders, the three men were arrested, disappeared for several years, and were eventually brought forth to offer false confessions once the Party consolidated power. After confessing, the men were pardoned and reinstated in the Party. Sometime after their release, Winston saw them in the Chestnut Tree Café and remembers that Aaronson and Rutherford's noses were broken.
A little later, the three men were arrested again and confessed to all their old crimes as well as a string of new ones. Following their second trial, the men were executed and their fate was recorded in the Party's historical records. Five years after their execution, Winston received an older article in The Times, which contained a photograph of delegates at some Party function in New York. Among the delegates in the photograph were Jones, Aaronson, and Rutherford.
The date was written at the top of the article and stuck out in Winston's mind. Jones, Aaronson, and Rutherford had confessed that on that specific date, they had been in Siberia, where they betrayed important military secrets to the Eurasian General Staff. The article and photograph were concrete evidence that their confessions were lies. Winston feels this information is enough to "blow the Party to atoms" if it could somehow be published to the world.
Jones, Aaronson, and Rutherford were among the last of the original leaders of the Revolution in which Big Brother's rule was established. After Big Brother had achieved his position of ultimate power, those prominent in the Revolution were systematically wiped out. Like the others before them, Jones, Aaronson, and Rutherford were arrested, then they vanished for a year or more. After this interval, they reappeared to incriminate themselves, confessing to a variety of crimes including sharing intelligence with the enemy, embezzlement, murder, and acts of sabotage. After confessing, they had been purportedly pardoned and reinstated in the Party, only to be rearrested again a little later. They were given a second trial, at which "they confessed to all their old crimes over again, with a whole string of new ones." After this trial, they were summarily executed.
The significance of the story about Jones, Aaronson, and Rutherford is that their confessions, like those of so many others eliminated in the purges, were false, and Winston, whose job it was to rewrite history, had once held concrete proof that their confessions were lies. Winston had actually seen the three ruined men at the Chestnut Café some time after their first confession, and so was able to recognize them immediately when he came upon a dated newspaper photograph showing them "at some Party function in New York", on the same day that, according to their testimony at both their trials, they had been somewhere in Siberia betraying important military secrets.
Winston reflected for just a fleeting moment on the damage that could be done to the Party if, in some way, the photograph "could have been published to the world and its significance made known". As it was, he held it for only a few seconds before covering it up and depositing it surreptitiously into the memory hole, where it was quickly burned to ashes (Part I, Chapter 7).