WASHINGTON — 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.
The head of the Criminal Investigation Task Force at Guantanamo from 2002-2005 confirmed to McClatchy that in late 2002 and early 2003, intelligence officials were tasked to find, among other things, Iraq-al Qaida ties, which were a central pillar of the Bush administration's case for its March 2003 invasion of Iraq.
"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," said retired Army Lt. Col. Brittain Mallow, a former military criminal investigator. "That was something they were tasked to look at."
He said he was unaware of the origins of the directive, but a former senior U.S. intelligence official has told McClatchy that Cheney's and former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's offices were demanding that information in 2002 and 2003. The official, who wasn't authorized to speak publicly on the matter, requested anonymity.
During the same period, two alleged senior al Qaida operatives in CIA custody were waterboarded repeatedly — Abu Zubaydah at least 83 times and Khalid Sheik Mohammed at least 183 times.
A 2004 Senate Intelligence Committee report said that the two were questioned about the relationship between al Qaida and Iraq, and that both denied knowing of one.
A U.S. Army psychiatrist, Maj. Paul Burney, told the Army Inspector General's office in 2006 that during the same period, interrogators at Guantanamo were under pressure to produce evidence of al Qaida-Iraq ties, but were unable to do so.
"The more frustrated people got in not being able to establish that link . . . there was more and more pressure to resort to measures that might produce more immediate results," Burney said, according excerpts of an interview published in a declassified Senate Armed Services Committee report released on April 22.
A key proponent of the Iraq invasion and of harsh interrogation methods, Cheney has become the leading defender of such measures, which included forced nudity, prolonged sleep deprivation, stress positions and waterboarding, which simulates drowning.
The Rocky Mountain News asked Cheney in a Jan. 9, 2004, interview if he stood by his claims that Saddam's regime had maintained a "relationship" with al Qaida, raising the danger that Iraq might give the group chemical, biological or nuclear weapons to attack the U.S.
"Absolutely. Absolutely," Cheney replied.
A Cheney spokeswoman said a response to an e-mail requesting clarification of the former vice president's remarks would be forthcoming next week.
"The (al Qaida-Iraq) links go back," he said. "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."
No evidence of such training or of any operational links between Iraq and al Qaida has ever been found, according to several official inquiries.
It's not apparent which Guantanamo detainees Cheney was referring to in the interview.
One al Qaida detainee, Ibn al Sheikh al Libi, claimed that terrorist operatives were sent to Iraq for chemical and biological weapons training, but he was in CIA custody, not at Guantanamo.
Moreover, he recanted his assertions, some of them allegedly made under torture while he was being interrogated in Egypt.
"No postwar information has been found that indicates CBW training occurred, and the detainee who provided the key prewar reporting about this training recanted his claims after the war," a September 2006 Senate Intelligence Committee report said.
Although the Defense Intelligence Agency questioned it at the time, former President George W. Bush cited al Libi's claim in an October 2002 address, and former Secretary of State Colin Powell used in his February 2003 speech to the United Nations.
A Libyan newspaper last week reported that al Libi committed suicide in a Libyan jail.
(Warren P. Strobel contributed to this article.)
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