O'Neill: 'Frenzy' distorted war plans account
Rumsfeld: Idea of a bias toward war 'a total misunderstanding'
O'Neill: "I'm amazed that anyone would think that our government ... doesn't do contingency planning."
CNN's John King reports O'Neill retracted characterization that Bush had predisposition to Iraq war.
CNN's Dana Bash on the controversy over O'Neill's comments.
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill said Tuesday his account of the Bush administration's early discussions about a possible invasion of Iraq has been distorted by a "red meat frenzy."
The controversy began last week when excerpts were released from a book on the administration published Tuesday in which O'Neill suggests Iraq was the focus of President Bush's first National Security Council meeting.
That started what O'Neill described to NBC's "Today" show as a "red meat frenzy that's occurred when people didn't have anything except snippets."
"People are trying to make a case that I said the president was planning war in Iraq early in the administration," O'Neill said.
"Actually, there was a continuation of work that had been going on in the Clinton administration with the notion that there needed to be regime change in Iraq."
The idea that Bush "came into office with a predisposition to invade Iraq, I think, is a total misunderstanding of the situation," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told reporters at the Pentagon.
Bush administration officials have noted that U.S. policy dating from the Clinton administration was to seek "regime change" in Iraq, although it focused on funding and training Iraqi opposition groups rather than using military force. (Full story)
Retired Army Gen. Hugh Shelton, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he saw nothing to indicate the United States was close to attacking Iraq early in Bush's term.
Shelton, who retired shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, said the brass reviewed "on the shelf" plans to respond to crises with the incoming Bush administration.
But in the administration's first six months, "I saw nothing that would lead me to believe that we were any closer to attacking Iraq than we had been during the previous administration," Shelton told CNN.
O'Neill, former CEO of aluminum producer Alcoa, sat on the National Security Council during his 23 months as treasury secretary.
He was pushed out of the administration in December 2002 during a dispute over tax cuts and growing budget deficits, and was the primary source for author Ron Suskind's book, "The Price of Loyalty: George Bush, the White House and the Education of Paul O'Neill."
"From the start, we were building the case against Hussein and looking at how we could take him out and change Iraq into a new country," O'Neill is quoted as saying in the book.
"And, if we did that, it would solve everything. It was about finding a way to do it. That was the tone of it -- the president saying, 'Fine. Go find me a way to do this.'"
But Tuesday O'Neill said, "I'm amazed that anyone would think that our government, on a continuing basis across political administrations, doesn't do contingency planning and look at circumstances."
Several Democratic presidential candidates seized on O'Neill's comments to argue that the Bush administration misled Americans about the drive to war with Iraq, where nearly 500 American troops have been killed since March.
Democratic front-runner Howard Dean used them as a jumping-off point to attack three rivals -- Rep. Dick Gephardt and Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards -- who supported a congressional resolution authorizing Bush to act against Iraq.
"I would remind Iowans and others that a year ago, I stood up against this war and was the only one to do so of the individuals I have mentioned," said Dean, whose opposition to the war helped propel him to the top of the pack.
Bush repeated his position Monday that his administration turned to war with Iraq only after the September 11 attacks changed the way U.S. officials viewed Baghdad's suspected weapons programs.
That Iraq was a concern before that time was evident in July 2001, when national security adviser Condoleezza Rice told CNN that Saddam "is on the radar screen for the administration," and senior officials met at the White House two days later to discuss Iraq.
During the same time, Iraq began dispersing aircraft and air defense capabilities in preparation for more aggressive U.S. airstrikes to enforce the "no-fly" zones over northern and southern Iraq.
A senior administration official told CNN that early Bush administration discussions regarding Iraq reviewed existing policies and plans.
Officials were particularly concerned with enforcement of the "no-fly" zones, where Iraqi air defense forces had been taking potshots at U.S. and British warplanes since late 1998.
Rumsfeld said Tuesday that Iraq was the only place in the world where U.S. forces were being fired upon "with impunity," and "clearing it was something that needed to be addressed."
Richard Perle, a leading advocate of war with Iraq and a member of the independent Defense Advisory Board that advises Rumsfeld, told CNN the review was still under way when the September 11 attacks occurred.