Monday, January 12, 2004

The Treasury Department yesterday alerted its inspector general’s office that a classified document was displayed by CBS News during the network’s Sunday night interview with former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill.

Department spokesman Rob Nichols said it is “standard operating procedure” to make such a referral. In this case, a Treasury document stamped “secret” appeared during Mr. O’Neill’s interview with “60 Minutes.” It is up to the inspector general to decide whether to open a formal investigation.

Mr. O’Neill, who was fired by President Bush, was interviewed in conjunction with today’s release of an anti-Bush book: “The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O’Neill.”

In a press release, publisher Simon & Schuster said that Mr. O’Neill turned over 19,000 pages of internal documents to author Ron Suskind.

“The massive trove of documents that O’Neill supplied to Suskind captures the action of the full breadth of the U.S. government,” the publisher’s statement said. “They represent every document that crossed O’Neill’s desk, stretching from his daily schedule and memoranda to the president to hand-scribbled notes. The file also contains unauthorized transcripts of meetings involving Bush and his most senior advisers.”

Federal law prohibits the release of classified material that endangers U.S. national security. But the law is rarely, if ever, enforced. There are leaks of classified information in Washington on an almost daily basis.

In 2000, the Senate Intelligence Committee approved language that broadened the law’s reach to make it a felony to release any classified information. But President Clinton vetoed the bill, worrying that it would discourage government whistleblowers.

Mr. O’Neill appears to be Mr. Suskind’s main source for “The Price of Loyalty,” a generally unflattering portrait of the president.

Mr. O’Neill’s collaboration has reportedly shocked some of Mr. Bush’s close associates. Mr. O’Neill maintained long friendships with two loyal Bush officials — Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Mr. Rumsfeld talked twice to Mr. O’Neill by telephone after hearing that his friend was involved in a book about Mr. Bush. The defense secretary is said to have cautioned Mr. O’Neill on how such a book might be perceived.

Mr. Rumsfeld often speaks of the damage done by government officials who release secrets.

“Every once in a while, there are people in the United States government who decide that they want to break federal criminal law and release classified information, and they ought to be imprisoned,” he said in 2002. “And if we find out who they are, they will be imprisoned.”

One of the book’s supposed blockbuster revelations was that Mr. Bush and his national-security team talked of options for ousting Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein before September 11.

But Bush supporters point out that, under the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998 signed by President Clinton, it was the law of the land for Washington to seek Saddam’s ouster. They say it was only natural to be discussing contingencies based on the law’s requirements.

Mr. O’Neill joined the new administration in 2001 after a successful tenure as head of Alcoa.

Bush officials soon soured on Mr. O’Neill for making statements that offended Congress and seemed off-message, particularly on the value of the president’s tax cuts. It fell to Mr. Cheney to inform Mr. O’Neill on Dec. 5, 2002, that he was out of the job.

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