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Cabinet members defend Bush from O'Neill

O'Neill: 'These people are nasty and they have a long memory'

O'Neill: At Cabinet meetings, Bush was like
O'Neill: At Cabinet meetings, Bush was like "a blind man in a room full of deaf people."

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George W. Bush is facing harsh criticism by former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill in an upcoming book and accompanying interviews. CNN's Dana Bash reports (January 12)
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Paul O'Neill
Ron Suskind
John Snow
Don Evans

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Two Cabinet members Sunday defended President Bush from harsh criticism by former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill in an upcoming book and accompanying television and magazine interviews.

In the book, "The Price of Loyalty," by former Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind, scheduled for publication Tuesday, O'Neill says administration officials discussed plans to go to war with Iraq as early as their first weeks in office.

He also compares Bush's presence at Cabinet meetings to "a blind man in a room full of deaf people."

Commerce Secretary Don Evans, a longtime Bush friend who was chairman of his 2000 campaign, disputed that account Sunday.

"He drives the meeting, asks tough questions. He likes dissent," Evans told CNN's "Late Edition."

"He likes to see debate. He thinks it's very healthy, very constructive for the process. Oftentimes, he has to make the deciding decision when he has his advisers on both sides of the same subject."

An interview with O'Neill aired Sunday night on the CBS program "60 Minutes."

In it, O'Neill said the Bush administration was eyeing an invasion of Iraq "from the very beginning" -- months before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, that administration officials said changed their strategic perspective.

Bush administration officials say regime change in Iraq had been U.S. policy since 1998, when President Clinton was in office, and insist removing Saddam by force was a last resort.

They also say the Bush administration has contingency plans about many global hotspots.

"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," O'Neill said in the interview.

"We didn't listen to [O'Neill's] wacky ideas when he was in the White House, why should we start listening to him now," said a senior official. The official said he informed Bush of O'Neill's comments but declined to describe the president's reaction.

Suskind said he interviewed hundreds of people for the book, including several Cabinet members who gave him their accounts of meetings with the president, their notes and documents.

But the main source of the book was O'Neill, who said he was going public because he felt the administration "has been too secretive about how decisions have been made," CBS said.

The network added that O'Neill gave Suskind 19,000 internal documents and took no money for his role in the book.

O'Neill, the former CEO of aluminum giant Alcoa, was fired in December 2002 over differences with the administration's tax cuts.

Suskind writes that O'Neill warned Vice President Dick Cheney of the consequences of a growing budget deficit, only to be told that Ronald Reagan's two-term presidency showed "deficits don't matter."

"I enjoyed my times spent with Paul O'Neill and I appreciate his service," Evans said. "But we continue to stay focused on jobs for the American people, growing this economy, and the results are proving that the president's policies that he's been leading on are working."

John Snow, who replaced O'Neill's at the Treasury Department, said the administration believes cutting budget deficits -- projected to hit $500 billion -- is important, but the shortfalls are "understandable" given the impacts of recession and war.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan brushed off O'Neill's criticism Saturday.

"We appreciate his service, but we are not in the business of doing book reviews," he told reporters.

"It appears that the world according to Mr. O'Neill is more about trying to justify his own opinion than looking at the reality of the results we are achieving on behalf of the American people."

O'Neill also told Time magazine he never saw evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq --Bush's primary justification for the U.S.-led invasion of the country in March.

None have been found, although searches have turned up evidence of continuing research on banned weapons.

O'Neill predicted that his former colleagues -- one of whom has already tried to paint him as a disgruntled former employee with a "tin ear" for politics -- would hit back.

"These people are nasty and they have a long memory," O'Neill told Time.

Democrats vying for the chance to challenge Bush in November jumped on O'Neill's comments.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, whose opposition to the invasion of Iraq has boosted him to the front ranks of Democratic candidates, said the Suskind book shows Bush "planned to go to war all along."

Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, who backed the decision to go to war in Iraq, said O'Neill's concerns about Bush's economic programs were right.

"This administration has taken us into the largest fiscal deficit in our history," Lieberman told "Fox News Sunday."

"The dollar is at an all-time low, and 3 million people lost their jobs. Last month, when the administration said we'd expect to see 150,000 new jobs created, we ended up seeing 1,000 -- a very lame performance."

Former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri told CBS that O'Neill's observations about Bush "are things that I've found when I met with the president."

"I told the president on 9/12, the day after 9/11, that we had to trust one another, that we had to try to put politics aside, to try to prevent further acts of terrorism," Gephardt said.

"I said, 'This is a matter of life and death, and we've got to do our best to work together to keep our people safe.' And I've really tried to do that. I found him to be hard to help."

Former Sen. Bob Dole, the Republican Party's presidential nominee in 1996, said he wouldn't suggest O'Neill was "bitter," but he was "certainly very critical."

"I mean, there's always somebody in somebody's administration who jumps out early, sells a book, and goes after the guy who hired him," Dole told CNN. "I don't know if that's good. It may be good business; it's not good politics."

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