THAT’S NOT A TICKING TIME BOMB…. About a month ago, McClatchy reported that the Bush administration abused detainees in part because officials were desperate for non-existent evidence linking al Qaeda to Saddam Hussein’s regime. The piece talked to a senior former U.S. intelligence official who said Cheney and Rumsfeld were “demanding proof of the links” in 2002 and 2003. When the imaginary evidence wasn’t produced, the administration “blew that off and kept insisting that we’d overlooked something, that the interrogators weren’t pushing hard enough, that there had to be something more we could do to get that information.”

Yesterday, this became a subject of renewed interest.

Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s former chief of staff in Bush’s State Department, raised a few eyebrows with this item:

What I have learned is that as the administration authorized harsh interrogation in April and May of 2002 — well before the Justice Department had rendered any legal opinion — its principal priority for intelligence was not aimed at pre-empting another terrorist attack on the U.S. but discovering a smoking gun linking Iraq and al-Qa’ida.

It wasn’t just Wilkerson.

Writing on The Daily Beast, former NBC producer Robert Windrem reports that in April 2003, Dick Cheney’s office suggested that interrogators waterboard an Iraqi detainee who was suspected of having knowledge of a link between Saddam and al Qaeda.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse was questioned on the issue today in two TV interviews. Speaking to CNN, Whitehouse allowed: “I have heard that to be true.” To MSNBC, he noted that there was additional evidence of this in the Senate Armed Services committee report, and from Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Colin Powell. “This thing is just getting deeper and deeper,” said Whitehouse, noting that if it were true, it would significantly bolster the case for prosecutions.

And MSNBC’s Chris Matthews also picked up on the issue this evening, as did Ed Schultz of the same network.

Torture is wrong (and illegal, and counter to our national security interests) regardless of the Bush administration’s motivations. But many — in the media, on the Hill, etc. — seem inclined to think doing the wrong thing for the right reason is somehow tolerable. Bush/Cheney was wrong to torture, the argument goes, but they were only trying to protect Americans from another terrorist attack.

Which is precisely why these revelations, if accurate, have the potential to be devastating. There was no “ticking time bomb,” but there was a political agenda. Getting a detainee to offer evidence of a non-existent link wouldn’t have furthered our security interests or saved American lives, but it would have made the Bush White House’s sales pitch for an unnecessary war a lot easier.

Are the same torture apologists we’ve heard from lately willing to also accept “extracting false confessions” as a reasonable justification?

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.