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Bush Planned to Oust Saddam Even Before 9/11 Attacks, Charges Ex-Cabinet Secretary - 2004-01-11

A former U.S. cabinet official says in a new book that President Bush was looking at plans to remove former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein from the start of the Bush presidency in 2001, before the September 11 attacks. The former official has strong criticism of the Bush administration's economic plans.

"From the very beginning, there was a conviction that Saddam Hussein was a bad person and that he needed to go," said Former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill in an excerpt of his Sunday interview released in advance by CBS News.

After nearly two years on the job, President Bush fired Mr. O'Neill in December 2002 because of disagreements over tax cuts. Prior to joining the Bush Cabinet, the former treasury secretary was a corporate executive.

Mr. O'Neill's interview is part of efforts to promote a new book, The Price of Loyalty, about the first half of the Bush administration. The book, by Ron Suskind, will be released this week in the United States.

A White House spokesman said the Bush administration considered Saddam Hussein a threat before September 11, and even more of a threat after those terrorist attacks. The spokesman said he believes Mr. O'Neill is using the book to justify his own opinions.

In the book, Mr. O'Neill says that during his time as treasury secretary and as a member of President Bush's national security council, he saw no persuasive evidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Democratic presidential candidate Congressman Richard Gephardt told the CBS television program Face the Nation that U.S. suspicions about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction pre-dated and went beyond the current president.

"I went to the CIA, and I asked all of those questions and got an emphatic, affirmative answer that there was genuine concern and worry, that he either had components or weapons or the ability to quickly make components that could wind up in the hands of terrorists," said Mr. Gephardt. "I did the same thing with former Clinton officials who were in the security part of the Clinton administration and got the same answer."

Another source of disagreement between Mr. O'Neill and the Bush administration was the U.S. economy. Mr. O'Neill criticized the administration's plan to cut taxes, saying resulting deficits could have a negative effect on U.S. fiscal soundness.

This position was supported by another Democratic presidential candidate, Senator Joseph Lieberman, who spoke on Fox News Sunday.

"It sure looks like that is why he was fired, and I think he was right," said Mr. Lieberman, who was Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore's 2000 running mate. "This administration has taken us into the largest fiscal deficit in our history. The dollar is at an all-time low, and three million people lost their jobs."

The U.S. fiscal deficit is $500 billion. Mr. O'Neill's successor, Treasury Secretary John Snow, repeated the Bush administration's plan to cut U.S. budget deficits in half within five years.