Monday, January 12, 2004

CRAWFORD, Texas — President Bush’s summit in Mexico today threatens to be overshadowed by recent criticism from former Treasury Secretary Paul H. O’Neill.

Mr. O’Neill characterized the president’s leadership as “disengaged” and said there was no “real evidence” to justify deposing Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

In an interview broadcast on CBS’ “60 Minutes” yesterday, Mr. O’Neill elaborated on remarks he made to author Ron Suskind that described Mr. Bush presiding over a typical Cabinet meeting as “a blind man in a room full of deaf people”

Mr. O’Neill, who said he is going public with his opinions because he thinks the Bush administration has been too secretive, also agreed to an interview for this week’s edition of Time magazine.

He told Time that from what he had heard at sensitive National Security Council meetings, he was not convinced that Saddam was in possession of weapons of mass destruction — a main justification by the administration for attacking Iraq.

“In the 23 months I was there, I never saw anything that I would characterize as evidence of weapons of mass destruction,” Mr. O’Neill told Time.

Mr. O’Neill told “60 Minutes” that the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive action against countries deemed threatening to the United States is “a really huge leap” and that the president started making plans to depose Saddam “from Day One.”

Mr. Bush fired Mr. O’Neill as Treasury secretary in December 2002 for insufficiently promoting the president’s economic agenda, especially his broad tax cuts.

The White House downplayed the significance of Mr. O’Neill’s comments.

“Obviously, the White House is not in the business of offering book reviews,” said White House spokesman Ken Lisaius yesterday. “It seems from various reports in the press that there seems to be an attempt by some to justify their own opinions rather than looking at the reality of the achievements of this administration.”

Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans said yesterday on CNN’s “Late Edition” that the presidential leadership style Mr. O’Neill described is foreign to him.

“I can’t tell you of the number of meetings that I have been in with [Mr. Bush] … he is asking the tough questions and then making the tough decisions, and doing it in a very decisive kind of way.”

The Democrats vying for their party’s presidential nomination were quick to use Mr. O’Neill’s remarks to criticize Mr. Bush.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean said the flap underscores the continuing importance of examining “the true circumstances of the Bush administration’s push for war.”

Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts said Mr. O’Neill has leveled “very serious charges” that indicate that Mr. Bush “lied to the American people.”

Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri said yesterday on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that he also found Mr. Bush “hard to help” on important matters such as the war on terrorism. Mr. Gephardt added that the president “has no curiosity” about the opinions of others.

Mr. O’Neill’s “comments about the president’s personal leadership involvement are really disconcerting,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.

However, Mr. Lieberman, among the most pro-war of the candidates running for the Democratic nomination for president, said Mr. Bush “did the right thing” in liberating Iraq.

Mr. O’Neill’s critical comments are a sharp contrast to his diplomatic words upon leaving the administration.

“I’m determined not to say any negative things about the president and the Bush administration,” Mr. O’Neill told Pittsburgh television station KDKA on Jan. 12 last year. “They have enough to do without having me as a sharpshooter.”

Mr. O’Neill told “60 Minutes” that he would be “really disappointed” if the Bush White House reacted angrily to his comments.

“Why would I be attacked for telling the truth?” Mr. O’Neill said.

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