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O'Neill accusations overshadow summit

Paul O'Neill

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From the Wolf Blitzer Reports staff in Washington:

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- It's an important day in Mexico. President Bush is attending the Summit of the Americas and the White House wants to highlight security issues, trade and immigration.

But the president finds himself deflecting questions about an ex-cabinet member, with a story to tell.

"The stated policy of my administration towards Saddam Hussein was very clear. Like the previous administration, we were for regime change," the president said at a joint press conference with Mexican President Vicente Fox Monday.

The news cycle is still dominated by former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, whose revelations about early Bush administration cabinet meetings are causing a political stir.

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan says this appears to be an effort by O'Neill to justify his personal views and opinions.

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O'Neill, who was forced out of his job late in 2002, is the main source in journalist Ron Suskind's new book, "The Price of Loyalty," focusing on first-hand accounts of Bush cabinet meetings during the president's first two-years in office.

O'Neill also spoke with Time magazine and CBS's "60-minutes." In the TV interview, O'Neill said it wasn't September 11 that changed the administration's strategic thinking on Iraq.

"From the very beginning there was a conviction that Saddam Hussein was a bad person and that he needed to go," said O'Neill.

In the book, O'Neill is quoted on the issue of removing Saddam:

"It was all 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.'"

O'Neill told Time that as a member of the national security team he never saw anything he'd characterize as evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

A senior administration official tells CNN -- based on the level of information given to different members of that team, "Rumsfeld and Tenet would know more than O'Neill."

Various accounts from O'Neill depict a president disengaged in cabinet meetings, not asking key questions or clarifying his positions.

O'Neill recalls a meeting where he pressed Bush for a cabinet-level debate on fixing social security.

"But he just sat back in his chair," O'Neill said. "His attitude was, 'I said this during the campaign, and whatever I said in the campaign must be right.'"

Current cabinet officials say this isn't the boss they know.

"He drives the meetings and asks tough questions. He likes dissent. He likes debate. He thinks it's very healthy, very constructive for the process," says Commerce Secretary and long-time presidential friend Don Evans.

O'Neill says of the Bush team, "These people are nasty and they have a long memory." But he also says, "I'm an old guy and I'm rich, and there's nothing they can do to hurt me."

Today on "Wolf Blitzer Reports:"

President Bush is in Mexico today meeting with Mexican President Vicente Fox at the Summit of the Americas, but the trip is being overshadowed by former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill's scathing account of the administration's handling of international and economic policy. Is this the case of a disgruntled employee or a whistle-blower? We'll have a debate. We'll also tell you how the White House is reacting to O'Neill's accusations.

He's one of the most outspoken anti-Bush critics on the political scene and he's donating millions of his own fortune to keep the president from being reelected. In a rare interview, financier George Soros will tell us why he's so deeply committed to his cause.

The latest in a recent round of new aviation security measures could soon be implemented. Under the CAPPS II system, personal information about commercial airline passengers will be gathered to assign them a color-coded threat level. While some say this will make flying safer, critics say it's a gross violation of privacy. We'll have a report.

Please join us today and every weekday at 5 p.m. ET as well as at noon ET for all the day's news.

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