WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - Former Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill denied yesterday that he had revealed any classified documents for use in a new book in which he attacks President Bush's leadership style and asserts that Bush was determined from his earliest days in the White House to oust Saddam Hussein.
"The truth is, I didn't take any documents at all" after being fired as treasury secretary in 2002, O'Neill said during an interview on NBC's Today show.
His remarks came as Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld defended Bush against O'Neill's criticisms, leveled in The Price of Loyalty,by Ron Suskind. O'Neill portrays the president as strikingly incurious about policy and quick to base decisions mostly on political calculations.
At the Pentagon, Rumsfeld disputed the book's assertion that Bush was planning to topple Hussein long before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The defense secretary said Bush decided to invade Iraq in March 2003, "after trying everything else in the world."
O'Neill's denial came in response to questions raised by the Treasury Department about how a document stamped "secret" ended up on a segment on CBS' 60 Minutes. Suskind wrote the book based chiefly on interviews with and documents provided by O'Neill.
On Sunday's program, Suskind described some of the 19,000 internal documents that O'Neill provided for the book, including memos under a cover sheet marked "secret" - shown in a freeze-frame - laying out a plan for a postwar Iraq.
O'Neill told Today that "I don't honestly think there's anything that's classified" in the material given to Suskind, saying that the piece of paper displayed on 60 Minutes was merely a cover page.
In fact, O'Neill told NBC, he never saw the documents. After the secretary's dismissal, the Treasury Department's general counsel sent him CDs containing the material he was allowed to take with him, which O'Neill said he forwarded to Suskind without opening. It was up to the general counsel to make sure none of the material was classified, O'Neill said.
Still, the "secret" page raised red flags at the Treasury Department. On Monday, top aides and attorneys moved swiftly to refer the matter to the department's inspector general's office.
"It's a proper and prudent procedure that would be followed anytime a piece of paper from this department marked 'secret' surfaced," said Treasury spokesman Rob Nichols.
Some administration critics say the Treasury Department's investigation amounts to payback from Bush. O'Neill's stinging analysis of Bush in the book makes him the highest-ranking official to break publicly with a tight-lipped administration that puts a premium on loyalty.
In senior-level meetings, O'Neill says, Bush asked few questions, and top officials rarely deviated from scripted roles, often stage-managed by Vice President Dick Cheney. He describes Bush in a Cabinet meeting as "like a blind man in a roomful of deaf people."
But asked whether he views the Treasury investigation as retribution, O'Neill told Today, "I don't think so," saying he would do the same thing if he were heading the department.
He brushed aside the furor surrounding his account of Bush's first National Security Council meeting. The book asserts that at that meeting, 10 days into Bush's presidency, the top agenda item was finding a way to remove Hussein.
There was nothing wrong with that, O'Neill told NBC, saying such talk was simply "a continuation of planning that had been going on" since the Clinton administration.
More generally, in the book, O'Neill accuses the Bush White House of allowing its policy-making to be guided by political factors.
O'Neill, 68, annoyed the White House during his Treasury tenure with his brash public statements and frequent refusal to sing from the White House songbook on tax cuts and other economic matters.
He was regarded as a Cabinet outsider, lacking personal ties with Bush. And he quickly earned barbs on Capitol Hill from members of both parties, making little secret of his disdain for political pleasantries.
White House aides have suggested that the former secretary took part in Suskind's book as a way to vent his personal views about the president. Claire Buchan, a White House spokeswoman, responded yesterday by saying, "The president has made decisions based on what's right for America and in the interests of national security and economic security."
When he tapped O'Neill shortly after being elected, Bush described him as "a steady hand, who when he speaks, speaks with authority and conviction and knowledge."
O'Neill was pushed out two years later, as the White House shook up its economic team and began pressing for a new round of tax cuts that O'Neill did not appear to support. When he learned of his pending ouster, rather than linger, O'Neill sent a terse resignation letter to Bush and in a matter of hours left for his home in Pittsburgh.
On Monday, Bush rejected O'Neill's assertion that the White House had been casting about for a reason to get rid of Hussein.
"Like the previous administration, we were for regime change," Bush said.
At the start of his term, Bush said, he followed a policy of military flyovers to patrol Iraq. "And then, all of a sudden, Sept. 11 hit. And as president of the United States, my most solemn obligation is to protect the security of the American people."