Is Paul O’Neill disavowing his memoirs? He says The Price of Loyalty is not his book. And those voluminous documents he took with him appear to be nothing more than a couple CDs of the Treasury Department’s greatest hits, which O’Neill himself hasn’t gotten around to listening to yet. And what about the war President Bush was hellbent to get us into? Well, consider the transcript of the interview with him and Ron Suskind on this morning’s Today show by she who must not be named:
COURIC: Now to former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill. In a new book out today, Secretary O’Neill calls his former boss, President Bush, disengaged but eager for war in Iraq well before September 11th. Well, now the Treasury Department is investigating whether O’Neill improperly revealed classified documents to Ron Suskind, the author of that book called “The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, The White House and The Education of Paul O’Neill.” Secretary O’Neill and Ron Suskind, good morning, nice to have you both.
PAUL O’NEILL, FORMER TREASURY SECRETARY: Good morning.
RON SUSKIND, AUTHOR: Hi, Katie.
COURIC: All right, let me ask you about the news of the morning. What do you think about this investigation being launched by the Department of Treasury that somehow you took classified documents and they were used, in fact, in the writing of this book?
O’NEILL: The truth is I didn’t take any documents at all. Ron approached me after he heard me give a speech last January wanting to write a book about my ideas. And after I had read the things that he’d written before, I decided to cooperate with him and I called the chief legal officer at the Treasury Department, the general counsel and said to him, “I’d like to have the documents that are OK for me to have.” And about three weeks later, the general counsel, the chief legal officer of the Treasury Department, sent me a couple of CDs which I, frankly, never opened. I gave them to Ron believing, as I do, if you’re going to trust someone, you need to trust them completely. So I gave Ron the CDs. And if you look at the document that seems to be in question…
COURIC: It was shown on “60 Minutes,” correct?
O’NEILL: If the cover page and the attachments were secret, the cover page was not secret. And so I’m not surprised that the Treasury Department has said they are going to take a look at how all this happened. What they will discover is the general counsel, the chief legal officer of the Treasury Department, went through all these documents and sent me things. Under the law, he’s not supposed to send me anything that isn’t unclassified. And so if there’s anything in that file that’s unclassified, the general counsel failed to be sure that everything was clear.
COURIC: So perhaps he’s the one who should be investigated?
O’NEILL: No, I don’t think so. I don’t honestly think there’s anything that’s classified in those 19,000 documents. There was a cover sheet that had classified attachments, but the attachments were not included in the file.
COURIC: The White House has said it would be irresponsible not to investigate this properly.
O’NEILL: Of course. If I were secretary of the Treasury, I would have done the same.
COURIC: Is this payback? They insist it’s not. But do you think in a way it is?
O’NEILL: I don’t think so. As I said, if I were secretary of the Treasury and these circumstances occurred, I would have asked the inspector general to take a look at this. I’m surprised they didn’t first call the general counsel and say, “What are the circumstances of this?” And hopefully today they will do that.
COURIC: And it will be a done deal; I mean, it will be over.
O’NEILL: Yeah, and the other thing that’s good, today the book is going to be available, and this red meat frenzy that’s occurred when people didn’t have anything except snippets — as an example, you know, people are trying to make a case that I said the president was planning war in Iraq early in the administration. 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.
COURIC: So you see nothing wrong with that being at the top of the president’s agenda 10 days after the inauguration?
O’NEILL: Absolutely not. One of the candidates had said this confirms his worst suspicions. 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. Saddam Hussein has been this forever. And so, I was surprised, as I’ve said in the book, that Iraq was given such a high priority. But I was not surprised that we were doing a continuation of planning that had been going on and looking at contingency options during the Clinton administration.
COURIC: Because of the Iraq Liberation Act that was passed in 1998 almost unanimously by the Senate and near unanimously by the House.
SUSKIND: I mean, to be sure, you know, Paul and other people in the room in that first NSC meeting were surprised, as Paul says in the book, that Iraq was at the top of the agenda and that it was more about the hows than the whys: how to affect regime change, rather than whether we should engage possibly the U.S. military in doing that. That’s what the book says. When people read the book, they’ll see it. You know, is that important? It’s crucial for public dialogue. But it’s the kind of thing that unless people read the book, they can draw assessments that may not be in the book.
COURIC: At the same time though, Mr. O’Neill, you do talk about the fact that you were in National Security Council meetings for 23 months, you saw a variety of documents and nowhere did you ever see evidence…
O’NEILL: I think I saw everything unless something was withheld from me that I didn’t know about.
COURIC: Well, we’ll get to that in a moment. But you say nowhere did you ever see evidence that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. Well, an intelligent person would draw the conclusion that those charges were being trumped up by the administration as a rationale for the invasion.
O’NEILL: No, that’s not what I’ve said. I have a very high standard for what represents evidence. If you told me that you put your hands on weapons of mass destruction, I’d probably believe you because you are a public person. If someone that I believed in told me they’d actually seen it, that’s evidence for me. But it’s possible — and certainly there were lots of inferences and circumstantial things that the national security assessments pulled together in looking at this question of mass destruction. I’m not denying or gainsaying the fact that one could make a case. What I have said is I never saw anything that I considered to be concrete evidence of weapons of mass destruction. I think the fact that we haven’t found them makes the point. That also doesn’t make a point that we shouldn’t have gotten rid of Saddam Hussein. I’m not making that case. I’m making the really clear case that I know the difference between evidence and what is allusion and assertion and the rest. That’s my point.
COURIC: Well, do you think an invasion of a country should be based on allusion and assertion?
O’NEILL: Well, I think one has to look very hard at the apparatus we have with the national intelligence assessments. And it’s why we have presidents. At the end of the day there’s one person who gets to decide is what he considers to be convincing proof of basis for going to war, and we elected George Bush and he decided it was good enough.
COURIC: Well, let’s talk about your assessment of the president and, I guess, his leadership style, for lack of a better term. You do describe him as disengaged. You do describe, I think if I can, sort of, try to assess your description, as policy having no process, kind of, being put together willy-nilly. You do describe him as a blind man in a room full of deaf people. So what are you saying about the way policy is established in this White House?
O’NEILL: Well, I’d say several things in response to your question. One, in hundreds of hours of conversation with the author — let me not put this off on general case. I used some vivid language that if I could take it back, I’d take that back, because it’s become the controversial centerpiece. And I am afraid that it will cause people to have an impression without actually reading the book. I hope people will read the book. But having said that, I want to also say this: This is Ron Suskind’s book. This is not my book. I have no economic interest in it, contrary to the inference in the Wall Street Journal this morning. I hope people will read it because I think it makes a contribution to illuminating, especially for young people, what I consider to be a bipartisan, broken political process.
COURIC: What’s broken about it?
O’NEILL: Well, this is a very long story. I’ll tell you what’s broken about it, Katie. The conversation we have, for example, about the need for fundamental reform of Social Security and our health and medical care system and our tax reform system — which is what I would have written about if this were my book; we probably would have sold 25 copies to my extended family because people don’t seem to have the interest. Television doesn’t seem to have the interest in drilling into really consequential issues with any depth. And both political parties are caught up in the same kind of stuff. You know, one of the presidential candidates has said we should have a lot more troops in Iraq and when he’s asked the question, “How many do we have now?” he doesn’t know. And people are not startled and think what’s the matter with us if we don’t insist on people having credible evidence and ideas about what they’re doing instead of the line of the day and looking for the red meat stuff that’s about controversy — it’s not about what’s right for the country.
COURIC: You do talk about some of the real philosophical differences you did have with this White House, or at least some members of the White House, vis-