NBC News and news services
updated 2/6/2004 6:32:13 PM ET 2004-02-06T23:32:13

Documents that Paul O’Neill, President Bush’s first treasury secretary and the focus of a new book critical of the administration, took when he left office last year were classified and should not have been given to him, Treasury Secretary John Snow said Friday.

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The Treasury Department opened an investigation last month into how material from the documents wound up being used in an interview O’Neill gave on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” where O’Neill was promoting the new book, “The Price of Loyalty,” written by former Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind.

Snow’s conclusion was included in a letter he sent Friday informing congressional committees of the findings. A copy of the letter was obtained by The Associated Press.

In the letter, Snow said a preliminary investigation conducted by the department’s inspector general found that sensitive information was released in the documents that were given to O’Neill, who sought them for use in researching the book.

The “documents were not properly reviewed before their release,” the letter said. It added, “We have identified documents that contain classified information and we are taking corrective action concerning those documents.”

U.S. officials told NBC News that O’Neill would not be asked to return the documents, which he said last month he assumed were safe to use because they were provided by the department’s counsel’s office.

“Secretary Snow takes this issue very seriously, and at his direction the department has already begun taking immediate corrective action," a spokesman said.

Book critical of Bush
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.

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O’Neill said in the CBS interview last month that 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.

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.

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.

NBC’s Norah O’Donnell and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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