A Wall Street Journal editorial attempted to deflect criticism of the Bush administration's use of "extraordinary rendition" -- the practice of transferring terrorism suspects to countries known for using torture in interrogations -- by claiming baselessly that "the Clinton Administration used the rendering practice with the avowed expectation that suspects would be tortured, or worse" [emphasis in original]. In the process, the Journal revived the long-discredited allegation that "the government of Sudan offered to deliver Osama bin Laden (then living in Khartoum) into U.S. custody" during the Clinton administration.
The Journal's March 11 editorial began by reviving the unfounded allegation that Sudan offered bin Laden to the United States in 1996:
It happens that in the spring of 1996, the government of Sudan offered to deliver Osama bin Laden (then living in Khartoum) into U.S. custody. The Clinton Administration was aware of the threat bin Laden posed, but it worried it didn't yet have sufficient information to indict him on terrorism charges in court. Instead, the U.S. sought to have the Saudis take bin Laden and behead him.
In fact, though conservatives have frequently repeated the accusation that the Clinton administration declined an offer by Sudan to hand over bin Laden, the 9-11 Commission rejected it as baseless. Chapter 4 of the commission's final report stated: "Sudan's minister of defense, Fatih Erwa, has claimed that Sudan offered to hand Bin Ladin over to the United States. The Commission has found no credible evidence that this was so."
Next, the Journal repeated a purported quotation* from Samuel "Sandy" Berger, Clinton's national security adviser, in which he explained that the administration had tried to get Saudi Arabia to take bin Laden from Sudan, then used Berger's remark to conclude that Clinton resorted to torture more readily than Bush:
"In the United States, we have this thing called the Constitution, so to bring him here is to bring him into the justice system," Mr. Berger told the Washington Post in October 2001. "I don't think that was our first choice. Our first choice was to send him someplace where justice is more 'streamlined.'"
In other words, the Clinton Administration used the rendering practice with the avowed expectation that suspects would be tortured, or worse. The Bush Administration says it uses it only on condition of humane treatment and assigns personnel to "monitor compliance." If this is a torture scandal, it didn't start on September 12, 2001.
In fact, the 9-11 commission has also refuted the assertion that the Clinton administration targeted bin Laden for rendition. A staff statement concluded: "No rendition plan targeting Bin Ladin, who was still perceived as a terrorist financier, was requested by or presented to senior policymakers during 1996."
Indeed, even if the United States did try to convince Saudi Arabia to accept bin Laden from Sudan, the Journal's suggestion that the Clinton administration's alleged use of rendition is comparable to Bush's ignores substantial evidence to the contrary, as Media Matters for America has noted. The New York Times reported on March 6 that the Clinton administration enforced much greater oversight and tighter restrictions on renditions and generally used the practice to send suspects to a country where they would face criminal prosecutions, rather than solely to undergo interrogation, as the Bush administration has reportedly authorized.
Similarly, Jane Mayer reported in the February 14 edition of The New Yorker that the limited rendition program under President Clinton expanded after 9-11 "beyond recognition":
Rendition was originally carried out on a limited basis, but after September 11th, when President Bush declared a global war on terrorism, the program expanded beyond recognition -- becoming, according to a former C.I.A. official, "an abomination." What began as a program aimed at a small, discrete set of suspects -- people against whom there were outstanding foreign arrest warrants -- came to include a wide and ill-defined population that the Administration terms "illegal enemy combatants."
* The Journal's source for the quotation of Berger attributed to The Washington Post was apparently an October 3, 2001, Post article by special projects reporter Barton Gellman titled "U.S. Was Foiled Multiple Times in Efforts to Capture Bin Laden or Have Him Killed." But the above quotation appears neither in the online version nor in the Nexis version of the article. On the other hand, the Albany Times-Union reprinted a version of the article that did contain the quotations.