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Tuesday, January 13, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
O'Neill's allegations are angrily rejected
By Dana Milbank
WASHINGTON The Bush administration reacted angrily yesterday to allegations by former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill that the president was detached from policy-making, and was planning from his first days in office to remove Saddam Hussein even without evidence that the Iraqi leader had weapons of mass destruction.
President Bush took issue with O'Neill's Iraq account, one of several allegations made public by the former Cabinet member in interviews with CBS News' "60 Minutes" and Time magazine, and in a new book by former Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind.
Bush's spokesman said O'Neill, who was fired as Treasury secretary at the end of 2002, was "trying to justify personal views." The Treasury Department, meanwhile, requested a probe into whether O'Neill was authorized to disclose the documents he released.
In one of the most serious charges, O'Neill, who was a member of Bush's war Cabinet, said there was no evidence that Saddam's Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
"In the 23 months I was there, I never saw anything that I would characterize as evidence of weapons of mass destruction," O'Neill, the former head of aluminum giant Alcoa, told Time.
O'Neill describes administration officials particularly Vice President Dick Cheney and political adviser Karl Rove as putting politics before sound judgment on issues such as steel tariffs and global warming. And he portrays Bush as detached from policy debate "a blind man in a room full of deaf people" stubbornly attached to policies regardless of facts.
O'Neill charges that Bush officials began planning Saddam's ouster long before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and information in the new accounts indicates Bush saw Saddam's quick ouster as important for the U.S. economy. O'Neill also asserts that he was rebuked for raising concerns that Bush's tax cuts were dangerously expanding the deficit.
When he expressed these concerns to Cheney after the 2002 midterm elections, the vice president reportedly said, "(President Ronald) Reagan proved deficits don't matter," adding: "We won the midterms. This is our due."
Treasury spokesman Rob Nichols said yesterday the department's inspector general had been asked to examine whether O'Neill had improperly released confidential material. He said the administration is particularly concerned about a document shown on "60 Minutes" that said "secret."
"I appreciate former Secretary O'Neill's service to our country," Bush said, rejecting O'Neill's description of the Iraq chronology. "In the initial stages of the administration, as you might remember, we were dealing with Desert Badger or flyovers and fly-betweens and looks, and so we were fashioning policy along those lines. And then all of a sudden September the 11th hit."
White House press secretary Scott McClellan, briefing reporters on Air Force One en route to Mexico, said the O'Neill matter "appears to be more about trying to justify personal views and opinions than it does about looking at the results that we are achieving on behalf of the American people."
Asked about O'Neill's assertion that Bush and his top aides had sought from the earliest days to remove Saddam, McClellan said: "The president exhausted all possible means to resolve this resolve the situation in Iraq peacefully."
In his "60 Minutes" appearance, O'Neill said, "From the very beginning, there was a conviction that Saddam Hussein was a bad person and that he needed to go."
In Suskind's book, "The Price of Loyalty," O'Neill provides details of top-level meetings in which political considerations seemed to trump policy judgments.
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