Bush began Iraq plan pre-9/11, O'Neill says
WASHINGTON -- President Bush and his senior aides began plotting the invasion of Iraq just days after he took office in January 2001 and not, as the administration has indicated, after terrorists struck against the United States eight months later, according to former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, who was forced from his post in December 2002.
In an interview scheduled to air tonight on CBS News' "60 Minutes," O'Neill derided what he considered the administration's intent from the start to remove Saddam Hussein by force.
"From the very beginning, there was a conviction that Saddam Hussein was a bad person and that he needed to go," O'Neill told the news program, according to excerpts released yesterday. "For me, the notion of preemption, that the US has the unilateral right to do whatever we decide to do, is a really huge leap."
White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said yesterday that Hussein "was a threat to peace and stability before Sept. 11, and even more of a threat after Sept. 11."
The interview of O'Neill, the only Bush Cabinet member so far to leave office, served as a preview to a forthcoming book written by former Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind about O'Neill's experience in the Bush administration.
The book is based in part on thousands of notes and documents collected by the former treasury chief, as well as information gathered by Suskind from other White House insiders, to examine the first half of the president's term. It is bound to reignite the debate over whether the Bush administration used the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as cover to launch a preordained policy of toppling Hussein.
"I have always said that the president failed to make the case to go to war with Iraq," Howard Dean said in a statement released by his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. "Now, after the fact, we are learning new information about the true circumstances about the Bush administration's push for war, this time by one of his Cabinet secretaries.
"The country deserves to know, and the president needs to answer, why the American people were presented with misleading or manufactured intelligence as to why going to war with Iraq was necessary," Dean said. "Secretary O'Neill's comments only underscore the continuing importance that these outstanding questions be answered." Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, one of Dean's rivals for the presidential nomination, said O'Neill had raised very serious charges.
"We already knew the administration broke every promise they made to work through the UN, use the resolution to enforce inspections, build a coalition, and plan for peace," Kerry said in a statement released by his campaign. "But Secretary O'Neill's revelations would mean the administration never intended to even try to keep those promises . . . It would mean that for purely ideological reasons they planned on putting American troops in a shooting gallery occupying an Arab country almost alone."
Beginning in the Clinton administration, official US policy called for "regime change" in Iraq, which had flouted United Nations resolutions put in place after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. But in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration cast its campaign against Hussein as part of the war on terror.
Administration officials said that Iraq's alleged ties to terrorists and Hussein's pursuit of weapons of mass destruction made it imperative that he be removed before he could pass deadly weapons to terrorist organizations.
Since the end of the Iraq war, US military investigators have failed to prove the existence of weapons of mass destructon or direct links between Iraq and Al Qaeda, which has claimed credit for the Sept. 11 attacks.
McClellan, the White House spokesman, also questioned the motives of O'Neill, who was asked to resign after he raised issues with some of the president's policies, including telling Congress he was not convinced that Bush's proposed $1.6 trillion tax cut was the best solution for the flagging economy.
"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.
Candidate Bush, as early as 1999, made it clear that Iraq would be dealt with. In a speech at the Citadel military academy on Sept. 23, 1999, he said achieving peace in the world will "require firmness with regimes like North Korea and Iraq, regimes that hate our values and resent our success. I will address all these priorities in the future."
Administration officials began sending public signals about a possible confrontation with Iraq before Sept. 11. In July 2001, after an Iraqi surface-to-air missile was fired at the American surveillance plane policing a no-flight zone over Iraq, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said, "Saddam Hussein is on the radar screen for the administration."
But the administration didn't put public emphasis on removing Hussein until after the Sept. 11 attacks. In fact, two months after the attacks, when he was asked whether military action against Huessein had been considered, Secretary of State Colin Powell said, "I never saw a plan that was going to take him out."
Still, O'Neill's comments provide a new window into the possible thinking of the president and his senior aides on Iraq. On the eve of the US-led invasion last March, two years after Bush took office, the president said all diplomatic avenues to avoid a conflict had been exhausted. O'Neill's charges raise questions about whether there was ever an intention to use diplomacy to deal with Iraq.
In the book, "The Price of Loyalty," O'Neill is quoted as saying that he was surprised that no one in the National Security Council in early 2001 questioned why Iraq should be invaded. "It was all about finding a way to do it. That was the tone of it. The president saying `Go find me a way to do this,' " O'Neill told CBS.
The book also cites internal Bush administration documents from the first three months of 2001 that show the White House was looking at military options and planning for the aftermath of Hussein's overthrow. "There are memos," Suskind said in the "60 Minutes" interview. "One of them marked `secret' says `Plan for Post-Saddam Iraq.' "