O'Neill: Iraq planning came before 9/11

By Dave Moniz and Peronet Despeignes,USA TODAY

CRAWFORD, Texas Paul O'Neill, President Bush's Treasury secretary in the first two years of his presidency, says the Bush administration was planning to invade Iraq long before the Sept. 11 attacks and used questionable intelligence to justify the war.

In wide-ranging interviews with the CBS program 60 Minutes and Time magazine, O'Neill said Bush and a number of top advisers began planning to get rid of Saddam Hussein soon after the 2000 election. As early as January 2001, they began looking for ways to justify an invasion, O'Neill said.

"From the very beginning, there was a conviction that Saddam Hussein is a bad person and that he needed to go," O'Neill told 60 Minutes. "From the very first instance, it was about Iraq. It was about what we can do to change this regime."

In the interviews, O'Neill was critical of Bush's leadership skills. He said Bush is too secretive and has saddled the economy with crippling long-term debt.

Bush fired O'Neill in December 2002 after clashing with the Treasury secretary over economic issues, including Bush's $1.7 trillion in tax cuts. O'Neill is the principal source for a new book about the Bush administration, The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House and the Education of Paul O'Neill by former Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind.

In the book, Suskind used materials provided by O'Neill to show that Bush administration officials targeted Saddam immediately after the election. Interviewed in the Jan. 19 edition of Time, O'Neill said the White House overstated the threat posed by Iraq.

"In the 23 months I was there, I never saw anything that I would characterize as evidence of weapons of mass destruction. ... I never saw anything in the intelligence that I would characterize as real evidence."

The Bush administration declined to comment on the substance of O'Neill's statements. Spokesman Ken Lisaius said Sunday: "The White House is not in the business of doing book reviews. This is an attempt to justify the former secretary's own opinions instead of looking at the record of results being achieved for the American people."

Suskind, also interviewed on 60 Minutes, said the Bush administration had already begun planning for an invasion of Iraq in January 2001 eight months before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington. The planning, Suskind said, involved discussions of war crimes tribunals, peacekeeping troops and questions about how to divide Iraq's oil wealth.

It is rare for top administration officials to criticize their bosses, even after leaving office. Thomas Mann, a government scholar at the Brookings Institution, a liberal-leaning think tank, likened the episode to criticism of

President Reagan's budget process by his budget director, David Stockman, in 1981. Stockman later wrote a book detailing his criticism.

"O'Neill is a straight shooter but perhaps a little naive," Mann said. "He thought Cabinet meetings were places for serious policy discussions, and this president doesn't engage in those."

Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry said O'Neill's comments show that the administration deceived the public about its reasons for going to war in Iraq. "It would mean they were dead-set on going to war alone since almost the day they took office and deliberately lied to the American people, Congress and the world," Kerry said.

In Suskind's book, O'Neill described the president leading Cabinet meetings "like a blind man in a room full of deaf people."

O'Neill joined the administration after a successful career in the private sector and having served as an adviser to Presidents Johnson, Nixon and Ford. He was known as a no-nonsense executive with a penchant for candor described as refreshing by some and inept by others.

He made several remarks as Treasury secretary that proved embarrassing to the administration, including a comment that financial aid to Brazil during its last currency crisis would be a waste of taxpayer money and likely to end up in "Swiss bank accounts."

Contributing: Jim Drinkard in Washington and Richard Benedetto in Crawford, Texas