WASHINGTON - President Bush acknowledged for the first time yesterday that he was mapping preparations to topple Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein as soon as he took office.
Bush's comments came in response to former Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill's contention in a new book that the chief executive was gunning for Hussein nine months before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and two years before the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Bush's comments appeared likely to stoke campaign claims by Democratic rivals for the White House that the president was planning to attack Iraq, possibly in retaliation for Hussein's attempt in 1993 to assassinate his father, former President George Bush,
"The stated policy of my administration toward Saddam Hussein was very clear - like the previous administration, we were for regime change," Bush told a joint news conference in Monterrey, Mexico, with Mexican President Vicente Fox. "And in the initial stages of the administration, as you might remember, we were dealing with [enforcing a no-fly zone over Iraq] and so we were fashioning policy along those lines."
Bush said al-Qaida's surprise Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States put him on a hair trigger to take pre-emptive action against Iraq rather than await evidence of a new threat to Americans.
"September the 11th made me realize that America was no longer protected by oceans and we had to take threats very seriously no matter where they may be materializing," Bush said.
A president's "most solemn obligation" is to protect the United States, Bush said: "I took that duty very seriously."
Asked about O'Neill's contention that the first National Security Council meeting of the Bush administration in January 2001 discussed ousting Hussein, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan didn't deny that account.
McClellan tried to focus attention on Bush's claims of success in Iraq rather than preparations to oust Hussein.
Bush "exhausted all possible means to resolve the situation in Iraq peacefully" before launching the invasion last March, McClellan said. Hussein defied a "final opportunity to comply" with United Nations demands to disarm, prompting Bush to take action "in the aftermath of Sept. 11th [because] it's important to confront threats before it's too late."
Bush, who fired O'Neill as treasury secretary in December 2002, said he "appreciated" O'Neill's nearly two years of service in the administration.
O'Neill told CBS News' 60 Minutes program Sunday night that "from the very beginning, there was a conviction that Saddam Hussein was a bad person and that he needed to go."
O'Neill, who headed Alcoa before joining the Bush administration in 2001 as treasury secretary, gave the interview as part of an effort to promote a new book, The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House and the Education of Paul O'Neill. The book was written by Ron Suskind with O'Neill's cooperation, including providing access to about 19,000 notes and documents.
Treasury Department spokesman Rob Nichols said Treasury officials had asked for an investigation into how a possibly classified document appeared in O'Neill's televised CBS interview.
Democratic Party Chairman Terry McAuliffe accused the White House of launching "an all-out attack on the man Bush once praised as a straight-shooter," adding: "Implied in O'Neill's allegations is that the president of the United States and his administration may have consistently lied to the American people in making the case for war against Iraq."
Democratic presidential candidates seized upon O'Neill's comments. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts said the accusation of a ready-to-go effort to oust Hussein "calls into question everything that the administration put in front of us."