CRAWFORD, Texas — The Bush administration was determined to oust Saddam Hussein long before the Sept. 11 attacks, former Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill told CBS News in an interview to be aired tonight.
"From the very beginning, there was a conviction that Saddam Hussein was a bad person and that he needed to go," O'Neill said in the interview with "60 Minutes."
The interview is being broadcast amid publicity for a new book by journalist Ron Suskind called "The Price of Loyalty," for which O'Neill was a primary source. The book is published by Simon & Schuster, which is owned by Viacom, the parent company of CBS News.
The book quotes O'Neill as saying he was surprised that at one meeting of President Bush's top advisors, no one questioned why Iraq should be invaded.
"It was all about finding a way to do it," the book quotes O'Neill as saying. "That was the tone of it. The president saying, 'Go find me a way to do this.' "
In the CBS interview, O'Neill also faults the Bush administration's declared policy of preemptively attacking other nations before they can attack the United States. "For me, the notion of preemption, that the U.S. has the unilateral right to do whatever we decide to do, is a really huge leap," he said.
O'Neill headed the Treasury Department from January 2001 to December 2002, when he was forced out as a result of policy disputes. An administration official dismissed his allegations Saturday, saying, "No one listened to his wacky ideas when he was in office. Why should we start now?"
Critics have accused the administration of using the Sept. 11 attacks as an excuse for invading Iraq and of implying that there was a link between Hussein and the attacks, which has never been proved.
In his book about the Bush administration, "Bush At War," author Bob Woodward said top officials raised the issue of targeting Hussein as soon as four days after the Sept. 11 attacks.
O'Neill's assertion dates to the early days of the administration, long before Sept. 11. But it is unclear from the remarks attributed to O'Neill in Suskind's book whether the administration was actively preparing to oust Hussein or was just making contingency plans.
On Saturday, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan would not confirm or deny that the White House began planning for a war with Iraq early in Bush's term.
"The fact of the matter is that the international community viewed Saddam Hussein as a threat before Sept. 11 and that threat became even more of a threat after Sept. 11," McClellan said from Texas, where Bush is spending the weekend.
"It appears that the world according to Mr. O'Neill is more about trying to justify his own opinions than looking at the reality of the results we are achieving on behalf of the American people," McClellan said.
Like the Clinton administration before it, the Bush White House was on record with warnings aimed at the Iraqi leader well before Sept. 11. Earlier in 2001, national security advisor Condoleezza Rice warned after an Iraqi missile attack that "Saddam Hussein is on the radar screen for the administration."
After the attacks, senior administration officials, notably Vice President Dick Cheney, argued that it had become imperative to prevent "rogue nations" such as Iraq from developing weapons of mass destruction and transferring them to terrorists.
O'Neill, a former chief executive of aluminum giant Alcoa whose comments on various economic issues had caused problems for the administration, was asked to resign in a shake-up of Bush's economic team after he opposed a plan to reduce taxes on corporate dividends.