NBC News and news services
updated 1/13/2004 3:32:29 PM ET 2004-01-13T20:32:29

Paul O’Neill, President Bush’s first treasury secretary and the focus of a new book critical of the administration, told NBC News on Tuesday that he welcomed an investigation of the disclosure of an administration document that referred to secret material.

The Treasury Department said Monday that it was launching an investigation into how the document wound up being used in O’Neill’s interview Sunday on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” where O’Neill was promoting the new book, “The Price of Loyalty.”

Interviewed Tuesday on the “Today” show, O’Neill said that after he resigned in December 2002, he asked the Treasury Department’s chief legal counsel “to have the documents that are OK for me to have.”

The legal counsel’s office “sent me a couple CDs, which I never opened,” O’Neill said, adding that he then gave them to former Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind, the book’s author.

He noted that what "60 Minutes" showed was just a cover sheet from the document, not any secret material itself.

Asked whether he thought the Treasury probe was a get-even move by the Bush administration, O’Neill replied: “I don’t think so. If I were secretary of the treasury and these circumstances occurred, I would have asked the inspector general to look into it.”

But O’Neill also said he thought the questions could have been more readily answered had top Treasury officials talked to the agency’s legal counsel. “I’m surprised that he didn’t call the chief legal counsel,” O’Neill said of his successor, Treasury Secretary John Snow.

Iraq controversy
O’Neill, whom Bush fired because he opposed another round of tax cuts, is quoted in the book as saying he was surprised by how focused the president was on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq from the start of his administration.

O’Neill said Tuesday that he did not mean to imply that the administration was wrong to begin contingency planning for a regime change in Iraq but that he was surprised that it was at the top of the agenda at the first Cabinet meeting.

O’Neill said he also had qualms about what he felt was the pre-emptive nature of the war planning. “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 on CBS.

He later told Time magazine that during his 23 months as secretary, which included a permanent seat on the National Security Council, he never saw evidence that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction.

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Video: Bush made a strong defense of his Iraq policy Monday during a news conference at the Summit of the Americas in Monterrey, Mexico.

Asked specifically whether O’Neill was correct in saying planning for the war began far ahead of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Bush said that when he had become president, he inherited a policy of “regime change” from President Bill Clinton and decided to adopt it as his own.

“So we were fashioning policy along those lines, and then all of a sudden September 11 hit,” he said.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld also challenged the assertion that Bush planned from the outset to oust Saddam.

Rumsfeld said Tuesday at a briefing for reporters that Bush made the decision to go to war in March 2003 “after trying everything else in the world.”

Rumsfeld also confirmed that he called O’Neill when he heard that he was participating in a book that might be critical of the administration and tried to persuade his longtime friend not to go through with the project. Rumsfeld said O’Neill told him that the book would be about “policy and substance.”

Other Republican supporters of Bush contended that O’Neill’s comments betrayed a grudge against Bush for the president’s decision to fire him.

“Mr. O’Neill is now as bitter as he was ineffective when he served as treasury secretary,” said Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio.

Among Democratic presidential contenders, retired Gen. Wesley Clark said O’Neill “confirms my worst suspicions about this administration,” while Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, said, “Now we find from Secretary O’Neill that the president was planning on attacking Iraq before 9/11 and that the American people, in effect, have been misled by this.”

Regrets ‘blind man’ quote
O’Neill also contended that the administration’s decision-making process was often chaotic and that Bush Cabinet meetings made the president look “like a blind man in a room full of deaf people.”

O’Neill backtracked on that description Tuesday, saying "I'd take that back" because he felt Bush critics had pounced on that quotation without reading the entire book.

O’Neill said on “Today” that “it was not my intention to be personally critical of the president or anybody else” but to cooperate with Suskind “on a chronicle of 23 months” in government.

Asked whether he would vote for Bush in November, O’Neill said he probably would, but he said the public needed to demand more of its leaders.

O’Neill was the principal source for the book by Suskind, who relied not only on extensive interviews with O’Neill but also on 19,000 documents he provided.

Video:

In his author’s note at the beginning of the book, Suskind writes that he and O’Neill both believed that government secrecy “had almost no value” and that the real threat to national security came not from revealing secrets but from the government’s bad analysis of the information it had.

For that reason, Suskind said, he and O’Neill were striving through the book to give readers as much information as possible about the inner workings of the Bush White House so they could draw their own conclusions.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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