Sun Jan 11 2004 08:46:45 ET

Drudge Report

New York – Discussing the case for the Iraq war in an interview with TIME’s White House correspondent John Dickerson, former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, who sat on the National Security Council, says the focus was on Saddam from the early days of the Administration. He offers the most skeptical view of the case for war ever put forward by a top Administration official. "In the 23 months I was there, I never saw anything that I would characterize as evidence of weapons of mass destruction," he told TIME. "There were allegations and assertions by people. But I’ve been around a hell of a long time, and I know the difference between evidence and assertions and illusions or allusions and conclusions that one could draw from a set of assumptions. To me there is a difference between real evidence and everything else. And I never saw anything in the intelligence that I would characterize as real evidence." TIME’s new issue will be on newsstands Monday, Jan. 12th.

O’Neill spoke with TIME on the eve of publication of a new book, The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, The White House and the Education of Paul O’Neill, written by Pulitzer prizewinning journalist Ron Suskind which traces the former Alcoa CEO’s rise and fall through the Administration: from his return to Washington to work for his third President, whom he believed would govern from the sensible center, through O’Neill’s disillusionment, to his firing, executed in a surreal conversation with Vice President Dick Cheney, a man he once considered a fellow traveler.

In Suskind’s book, O’Neill’s assessment of Bush’s executive style is a harsh one: it is portrayed as a failure of leadership. Aides were left to play "blind man’s bluff," trying to divine Bush’s views on issues like tax policy, global warming and North Korea. Sometimes, O’Neill says, they had to float an idea in the press just to scare a reaction out of him. This led to public humiliation when the President contradicted his top officials, as he did with Secretary of State Colin Powell on North Korea and Environmental Protection Agency administrator Christine Todd Whitman on global warming. O’Neill came to believe that this gang of three beleaguered souls—only Powell remains—who shared a more nonideological approach were used for window dressing. We "may have been there, in large part as cover," he tells Suskind.

When the corporate scandals rocked Wall Street O’Neill and Alan Greenspan devised a plan to make CEOs accountable. Bush went with a more modest plan because "the corporate crowd," as O’Neill calls it in the book, complained loudly and Bush could not buck that constituency. "The biggest difference between then and now," O’Neill tells Suskind about his two previous tours in Washington, "is that our group was mostly about evidence and analysis, and Karl [Rove], Dick [Cheney], Karen [Hughes] and the gang seemed to be mostly about politics. It’s a huge distinction."

On the eve of the Iraq war, O’Neill tells Suskind that he marvels at the President’s conviction in light of what he considers paltry evidence. "With his level of experience, I would not be able to support his level of conviction." That conviction, he tells the book's author seemed to be present in the administration from the start: "From the start, we were building the case against Hussein and looking at how we could take him out and change Iraq into a new country," he tells Suskind. "And, if we did that, it would solve everything. It was about finding a way to do it. That was the tone of it. The President saying, ‘Fine. Go find me a way to do this.'"