IRAQ, AL QAEDA, AND TORTURE, REDUX…. McClatchy’s Jonathan Landay moves the ball forward on one of the more provocative angles to the Bush administration’s torture scandal.

Then-Vice President Dick Cheney, defending the invasion of Iraq, asserted in 2004 that detainees interrogated at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp had revealed that Iraq had trained al Qaida operatives in chemical and biological warfare, an assertion that wasn’t true.

Cheney’s 2004 comments to the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News were largely overlooked at the time. However, they appear to substantiate recent reports that interrogators at Guantanamo and other prison camps were ordered to find evidence of alleged cooperation between al Qaida and the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein — despite CIA reports that there were only sporadic, insignificant contacts between the militant Islamic group and the secular Iraqi dictatorship.

Specifically, Cheney told reporters at the now-defunct paper, “The [al Qaida-Iraq] links go back. We know for example from interrogating detainees in Guantanamo that al Qaida sent individuals to Baghdad to be trained in C.W. and B.W. technology, chemical and biological weapons technology. These are all matters that are there for anybody who wants to look at it.”

Of course, those who have looked at it found that there were no meaningful links between the terrorist group and Saddam Hussein’s regime. More important in the current context, though, is the fact that Cheney seemed to believe that Gitmo detainees acknowledged connections between the two that didn’t exist.

The McClatchy report also quoted retired Army Lt. Col. Brittain Mallow, a former military criminal investigator, who said, “I’m aware of the fact that in late 2002, early 2003, that [the alleged al Qaida-Iraq link] was an interest on the intelligence side. That was something they were tasked to look at.”

This comes about a month after McClatchy first reported that 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.”

What’s more, last week, Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s former chief of staff in Bush’s State Department, said he’s “learned” that when Bush administration officials authorized detainee abuse, their “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.” Also last week, former NBC producer Robert Windrem reported that in April 2003, Cheney’s office recommended waterboarding an Iraqi prisoner who was suspected of having knowledge of a link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda.

The notion that the administration started with the preferred answer, and may have worked backwards through torture to help sell an unnecessary war, should help put the Pelosi “controversy” in context.

Steve Benen

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.