WASHINGTON – Former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill (search) denied on Tuesday that classified documents were used in a new tell-all book about his two years in the administration while Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld challenged his assertion that Bush was planning from the outset to oust Saddam Hussein.
Reacting to an announcement by the Treasury Department that it was launching an inspector general's investigation into how an agency document stamped "secret" wound up being used in his interview Sunday night on the CBS program "60" minutes, O'Neill said, "The truth is, I didn't take any documents at all."
Interviewed on NBC's "Today" show Tuesday, O'Neill said he had asked the Treasury Department's chief legal counsel "to have the documents that are OK for me to have" for use in the book entitled, "The Price of Loyalty."
Meanwhile, Rumsfeld told reporters at the Pentagon that the depiction in the book of a President Bush who was detached from policymaking and governed in a White House driven by politics was "night and day" different from his experience.
"I certainly don't see any validity to his criticism of the president at all," Rumsfeld said. "I really feel fortunate to be working with a man of his character and ability."
Rumsfeld confirmed that he had called O'Neill when he heard he was participating in a book that might be critical of the administration and had tried to convince his longtime friend not to go through with the project. Rumsfeld said he was told by O'Neill that the book would be about "policy and substance."
Reacting to O'Neill's assertion that Bush had begun planning for regime change in Iraq long before the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Rumsfeld said that Bush made the decision to go to war in March 2003 "after trying everything else in the world."
O'Neill, asked if he thought the internal Treasury probe was a get-even move by the administration, 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 thinks the questions could have been more readily answered if top Treasury officials had 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 (search).
O'Neill said a cover page for the documents might have suggested they were classified material but said that the legal counsel's office "sent me a couple CDs, which I never opened." He said he gave them to former Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind (search), the book's author.
"I don't think there is anything that is classified in those 19,000 documents," O'Neill said, predicting the Treasury investigation would show that the Treasury employees who collected the materials for him had followed the law.
O'Neill, who was fired by Bush in December 2002, is quoted in the book as saying the president was focused on removing Saddam from the start of his administration.
O'Neill also said Tuesday said 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, in the book, contends the administration's decision-making process was often chaotic and Bush Cabinet meetings made the president look "like a blind man in a room full of deaf people."
O'Neill told the "Today" show he was guilty of using some "vivid" language during his hundreds of hours of interviews with Suskind for the book. "If I could take it back, I would take it back," he said of the blind man quote.
Asked if he plans to vote for Bush in November's presidential election, O'Neill said he "probably" would. "I don't see anyone who is better prepared or more capable," he told NBC.
In Mexico for the Summit of the Americas meeting, Bush offered a forceful defense of his decision to go to war against Iraq, saying, "the decision I made is the right one for America" and for the world.
Asked specifically whether O'Neill was correct in saying that planning for the war had begun far ahead of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Bush said that when he had become president he had inherited a policy of "regime change" from former President Clinton and had decided to adopt it as his own.