O'Neill: Bush planned Iraq invasion before 9/11
( 2004-01-12 09:25) (Agencies)
Former US Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill said he never saw any evidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction -- U.S. President Bush's main justification for going to war -- and was told "deficits don't matter" when he warned of a looming fiscal crisis.
O'Neill, fired in a shake-up of Bush's economic team in December 2002, told CBS the discussion of Iraq continued at the next National Security Council meeting two days later and that he was given internal memos, including one outlining a "Plan for post-Saddam Iraq."
"In the 23 months I was there, I never saw anything that I would characterize as evidence of weapons of mass destruction," O'Neill told Time magazine in a separate interview. "There were allegations and assertions by people... To me there is a difference between real evidence and everything else."
O'Neill also raised objections to a new round of tax cuts and said the president balked at his more aggressive plan to combat corporate crime after a string of accounting scandals because of opposition from "the corporate crowd," a key constituency.
O'Neill said he tried to warn Vice President Dick Cheney that growing budget deficits -- expected to top $500 billion this fiscal year alone -- posed a threat to the U.S. economy.
Cheney cut him off. "You know, Paul, Reagan proved deficits don't matter," he said, according to excerpts. Cheney continued: "We won the midterms (congressional elections). This is our due."
A month later, Cheney told the Treasury secretary he was fired.
The vice president's office had no immediate comment, but John Snow, who replaced O'Neill, insisted that deficits "do matter" to the administration. "We're not happy about the size of these deficits. They're larger than they should be," Snow told ABC's "This Week," adding that Bush was committed to cutting them in half over the next five years.
According to former Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind, author of "The Price of Loyalty" on O'Neill's tenure, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called the former Treasury secretary and urged him not to contribute to the book. Suskind told CBS "I think it was the White House concerned" -- not a warning or a threat.
Democrats seized on the account, particularly O'Neill's charges that Bush entered office intent on invading Iraq and was in search of a way to go about it.
"What Paul O'Neill says... is what a lot of other people are beginning to conclude -- that there was an overstatement by the Bush administration of the weapons of mass destruction part of the argument for going to war against Saddam Hussein," Democratic presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman, a U.S. senator from Connecticut, told "Fox News Sunday."
In the CBS interview, O'Neill likened Bush at Cabinet meetings to "a blind man in a room full of deaf people." When he went in for his first one-on-one meeting with Bush "with a long list of things to talk about..., I was surprised that it turned out me talking, and the president just listening. As I recall ... it was mostly a monologue," O'Neill said.
Democratic presidential hopeful Richard Gephardt, a U.S. congressman from Missouri, said he had a similar impression of Bush, telling CBS' "Face the Nation" program: "He is a nice man. And he's a smart man. But he doesn't have experience. He doesn't have knowledge. And he has no curiosity."
The White House defended Bush.
"I know how he leads, I know how he manages.... He drives the meetings, tough questions, he likes dissent, he likes to see debate," U.S. Commerce Secretary Don Evans told CNN's "Late Edition."
Republican Rep. Mark Foley of Florida accused O'Neill of taking "a Shakespearean approach to advance his career and his book sales. Not since Julius Caesar have I seen such a blatant stab in the back. Et tu, Mr. O'Neill?"
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