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Controversy Grows Over Former Treasury Secretary O'Neill's Book Criticizing President Bush - 2004-01-14


There continues to be reaction to a just-published book in which former U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill raises questions about the timing and reasons why President Bush decided to go to war against Iraq. The former cabinet official, who was fired after disagreeing with the Bush administration's policy on tax cuts, claims the White House began planning the Iraq war in its early days, eight months before the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Paul O'Neill handed over 19,000 pages of government documents to former Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind for his just-published book titled The Price of Loyalty. In it, the author paints a picture of a president detached from policy-making, and a White House decision-making process that was often chaotic.

But what is drawing the most headlines is Mr. O'Neill's claim that even as a member of the president's National Security Council, he never saw proof that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, the administration's key rationale for invading Iraq.

"I never saw anything that I considered to be concrete evidence of weapons of mass destruction and I think the fact that we haven't found them makes the point," he said.

The book is naturally drawing fire from the White House. President Bush disputes assertions that his administration had to go searching for a reason to topple Saddam Hussein.

"The stated policy of my administration toward Saddam Hussein was very clear," said Mr. Bush. "Like the previous administration, we were for regime change."

In fact, legislation known as the Iraq Liberation Act, which calls for supporting efforts to topple the Iraqi leader, was signed into law by President Clinton in 1998, having passed Congress with strong bipartisan support. That may explain why, when interviewed on NBC's TODAY show, Paul O'Neill seemed startled that his assertions would surprise anyone.

"People are trying to make a case that I said the president was planning war in Iraq early in the administration," he said. "Actually, there was a continuation of work that had been going on in the Clinton administration, with the notion that there needed to be regime change in Iraq."

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has not read the book but he said, "What I've been reading about the book is so different from my experience in this administration. It is just dramatic. It's night and day."

The Treasury Department is now looking into whether its former secretary may have broken the law by handing over thousands of government documents used in writing the book. At least one of the documents displayed during an O'Neill television interview was stamped "secret."

"I don't honestly think there's anything that's classified in those 19,000 documents," stressed Mr. O'Neill.

Every document used in writing the book, he says, the Treasury Department agreed to hand over to him.

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