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Gov't seeks probe amid O'Neill interview
( 2004-01-13 09:35) (Agencies)

U.S. Treasury Department officials want to know how a classified document appeared on national television during a controversial interview with former U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill.

"It's based on the (CBS program) '60 Minutes' segment, and I'll be even more clear the document as shown on '60 Minutes' that said 'secret,"' Treasury spokesman Rob Nichols told reporters Monday.

O'Neill went on "60 Minutes" to allege that the United States began laying the groundwork for an invasion of Iraq just days after President Bush took office in January 2001 more than two years before the start of the U.S.-led war that ousted Saddam Hussein.

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

O'Neill is also the author of a new book about his term as Treasury chief called "The Price of Loyalty." O'Neill, who left the job in December 2002 in a shake-up of President Bush's economic team, provided author and former Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind with thousands of administration documents.

Nichols acknowledged that it was customary for departing officials to take documents when they leave. But the Treasury spokesman said the investigation will focus on how possibly classified information appeared on a television interview as one of O'Neill's papers.

Bush, who is in Mexico for meetings with Mexican President Vicente Fox and others, was asked about O'Neill during a press conference Monday.

"I appreciate former Secretary O'Neill's service to our country. We worked together during some difficult times," Bush said, mentioning the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on the United States and the recession that affected the American economy during Bush's early years.

But it's the U.S. war against Saddam Hussein and not the American economy that is raising questions with regard to O'Neill.

The official American government stance on Iraq, dating to the Clinton administration, was that the United States sought to oust Saddam. But O'Neill said he had qualms about what he asserted 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," according to an excerpt of the CBS interview.

The administration has not found evidence that the Iraqi leader was involved in the Sept. 11 attacks but officials have said they had to consider the possibility that Saddam could have undertaken an even larger scale-strike against the United States.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan would not confirm or deny that the White House began Iraq war planning early in Bush's term. But, he said, Saddam "was a threat to peace and stability before September 11th, and even more of a threat after September 11th."

"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 in Texas, where the president is staying at his ranch.

The administration began sending signals about a possible confrontation with Iraq even before Sept. 11, 2001.

In July 2001, after an Iraqi surface-to-air missile was fired at an American surveillance plane, Bush's national security adviser put Saddam on notice that the United States intended a more resolute military policy toward Iraq.

"Saddam Hussein is on the radar screen for the administration," Condoleezza Rice said at the time.

Yet U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said in December 2001, after the terrorist attacks in Washington and New York, that "with respect to what is sometimes characterized as taking out Saddam, I never saw a plan that was going to take him out."

According to the book by Suskind, the Bush administration began examining options for an invasion in the first months after Bush was inaugurated.

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