Plans for Iraq war began early in '01, O'Neill says

Ex-secretary of Treasury interviewed on TV

January 11, 2004|By Maura Reynolds | Maura Reynolds,LOS ANGELES TIMES

CRAWFORD, Texas - The Bush administration was determined to oust Saddam Hussein long before the Sept. 11 attacks, former Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill told CBS News in an interview to be aired tonight.

"From the very beginning, there was a conviction that Saddam Hussein was a bad person and that he needed to go," O'Neill said in the interview with 60 Minutes.

The interview is being broadcast amid publicity for a new book by journalist Ron Suskind called The Price of Loyalty, for which O'Neill was a primary source.

The book is published by Simon & Schuster, which is owned by Viacom, the parent company of CBS News.

The book quotes O'Neill, who led the Treasury Department from January 2001 to December 2002, as saying he was surprised that at one meeting of Bush's top advisers, no one questioned why Iraq should be invaded.

"It was all about finding a way to do it," the book quotes O'Neill as saying. "That was the tone of it. The president saying, `Go find me a way to do this.'"

In the CBS interview, O'Neill also faults the Bush administration's declared policy of "pre-emptively" attacking others before they can attack the United States.

"For me, the notion of pre-emption - that the U.S. has the unilateral right to do whatever we decide to do - is a really huge leap," he said.

O'Neill was forced out as Treasury secretary in 2002 as a result of policy disputes.

In his book about the Bush administration, Bush At War, author Bob Woodward said top officials raised the issue of targeting Hussein as soon as four days after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Yesterday, White House press secretary Scott McClellan would not confirm or deny that the White House began planning for a war with Iraq early in Bush's term.

"The fact of the matter is that the international community viewed Saddam Hussein as a threat before Sept. 11, and that threat became even more of a threat after Sept. 11," McClellan said from Texas, where Bush is spending the weekend.

"It appears that the world according to Mr. O'Neill is more about trying to justify his own opinions than looking at the reality of the results we are achieving on behalf of the American people," McClellan said.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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