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Inside Politics

O'Neill cleared in use of classified documents

Probe faults Treasury Department for releasing secret papers

From Suzanne Malveaux
CNN Washington Bureau

Former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill described President Bush in Cabinet meetings as
Former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill described President Bush in Cabinet meetings as "a blind man in a room full of deaf people."

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill has been cleared of wrongdoing in the use of classified documents as source material for a book that portrayed President Bush in an unflattering light, Treasury Department sources told CNN on Friday.

The investigation by the department's inspector general found that though O'Neill did receive classified material from the department after his resignation, the lapse was the fault of the department, not O'Neill, the sources said.

In a letter sent to members of Congress on Friday, Treasury Secretary John Snow said the documents "were not properly reviewed before their release" and that "we are taking corrective action concerning those documents," according to sources.

Asked for comment, Treasury spokeswoman Anne Womack Colton would say only that during the review of the material released to O'Neill, "weaknesses in handling and safeguarding of sensitive information were brought to the attention of Secretary Snow."

"[He] takes this issue very seriously, and at his direction, the department has already begun taking immediate corrective action."

O'Neill, who was forced out as Treasury Secretary in late 2002 in a shake-up of Bush's economic team over tax cuts, said he asked the department to provide 19,000 documents related to his tenure, which he then gave to former Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind, who was writing a book about O'Neill's experience in the Bush administration.

O'Neill, former CEO of aluminum producer Alcoa, sat on the National Security Council during his 23 months as secretary.

In Suskind's book, "The Price of Loyalty," O'Neill charged that plans for going to war in Iraq were discussed in the earliest days of Bush's presidency, well before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. He also described the president as being like "a blind man in a room full of deaf people" during Cabinet meetings.

O'Neill later said his views had been distorted and that Iraq contingency plans were being worked on as far back as the Clinton administration.

But he also told Time magazine that 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 2003.

On Friday, the president announced seven of nine members of a bipartisan commission he has charged with investigating the accuracy of the prewar intelligence on unconventional weapons in Iraq (Full story). Calls for an investigation began after the former chief weapons inspector, David Kay, said he doubted that Iraq had such weapons when war was declared last year.

The book raised a furor when it was released in January. The Treasury Department launched an investigation after CBS broadcast an episode of "60 Minutes" that contained an interview during which O'Neill held up a document marked "secret."

Bush critics charged that O'Neill was being targeted for his comments, but Treasury officials said they had no choice but to investigate whether classified documents had been misused.


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