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A secretary scorned

National | POLITICS: Fired Treasury chief Paul O'Neill fires back with a tell-all book

Issue: "Considering the heavens," Jan. 24, 2004

HEAVEN HAS NO RAGE LIKE love to hatred turned," the English dramatist William Congreve wrote in 1697, "Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned."

Evidently Mr. Congreve never met a fired cabinet member.

Former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill created a firestorm of controversy last week in promoting The Price of Loyalty, his behind-the-scenes look at the inner workings of the Bush administration. Mr. O'Neill, who was fired in December 2002 after a stormy, two-year tenure, blasted his ex-boss as removed, easily manipulated, and overly political.

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But the book's most damaging claim involved the administration's attitude toward Saddam Hussein. Long before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Mr. O'Neill alleged, the president was intent on toppling the Iraqi dictator. Iraq dominated the very first meeting of the National Security Council on Jan. 30, 2001, in Mr. O'Neill's recollection, and two days later, at another meeting of the council, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was already talking about transforming the Middle East by removing Mr. Hussein.

The president's attitude, according to Mr. O'Neill: "Fine. Go find me a way to do this."

The allegations immediately threatened to overshadow the president's weekly policy initiatives on immigration reform and space exploration. En route to Mexico City for a meeting with Mexican president Vicente Fox, press secretary Scott McLellan assured reporters aboard Air Force One that "the president exhausted all possible means to resolve this, resolve the situation in Iraq peacefully."

Taking a swipe at the source, Mr. McLellan added that the O'Neill book "appears to be more about trying to justify personal views and opinions than it does about looking at the results that we are achieving on behalf of the American people."

At his meeting with Mr. Fox, President Bush himself briefly defended his stance on Iraq. "The stated policy of my administration toward Saddam Hussein was very clear," he said, noting that enforcing the no-fly zone was a natural topic of discussion for the National Security Council. "Like the previous administration, we were for regime change ... and then all of a sudden September the 11th hit."

That didn't pacify Democratic critics, who see the continuing struggle in Iraq as a potential wedge issue this election year. "The American people, in effect, have been misled," insisted Rep. Dennis Kucinich, while his rival for the nomination, Sen. John Kerry, charged that the administration had "deliberately lied to the American people, Congress, and the world." Gen. Wesley Clark, not to be outdone, called for a congressional investigation.

If the book's content stirred up controversy, so did its methodology. Although billed as a memoir, it was penned by Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind, not by Mr. O'Neill himself. The former Treasury secretary shared his recollections with Mr. Suskind, along with some 19,000 documents he took with him when he left the administration.

In promoting the book on the CBS newsmagazine 60 Minutes, Mr. O'Neill held up one of those documents, clearly revealing for the camera that it had been stamped "Secret." The Treasury Department immediately announced it would investigate whether the former secretary had acted improperly in releasing the contents of classified documents. Mr. O'Neill responded that the department's general counsel had cleared the documents for release, and that Mr. O'Neill had passed them on to Mr. Suskind without reviewing them.

With an election on the horizon, the Bush team may prefer to see the controversy quietly disappear, rather than being prolonged by an ongoing investigation. But that's unlikely to happen: Thanks to the media frenzy over Mr. O'Neill's allegations, the book soared to No. 3 on the Amazon.com bestseller list even before its official release date.

And if the O'Neill book slips from the public consciousness long before Election Day, Democrats can take comfort in the fact that former EPA administrator Christie Todd Whitman, another moderate refugee of the Bush administration, is working on a tell-all book of her own.

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