Official Confirms O'Neill's Iraq Claim

ByABC News
January 13, 2004, 4:57 PM

Jan. 13 -- President Bush ordered the Pentagon to explore the possibility of a ground invasion of Iraq well before the United States was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, an official told ABCNEWS, confirming the account former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill gives in a book written by former Wall Street Journal reporter RonSuskind.

The official, who asked not to be identified, was present in the same National Security Council meetings as O'Neill immediately after Bush's inauguration in January and February of 2001.

"The president told his Pentagon officials to explore the military options, including use of ground forces," the official told ABCNEWS. "That went beyond the Clinton administration's halfhearted attempts to overthrow Hussein without force."

In The Price of Loyalty, O'Neill says that from the very start of his administration, Bush was focused on ousting Saddam. Bush says that his policy at the time was merely a continuation of the Clinton administration's stance. White House aides have suggested O'Neill, whom Bush fired in December 2002, is merely trying to sell books.

Both the official who spoke to ABCNEWS and O'Neill have acknowledged that Bush had not yet made up his mind for a ground invasion at the start of his administration, but they say officials were told to find ways to get rid of the Iraqi leader.

"Getting Hussein was now the administration's focus, that much was already clear," O'Neill said.

Defense Secretary Rumsfeld disputed O'Neill's account today. "I don't know what meetings he could have been in," Rumsfeld told reporters during a Pentagon briefing.

Classified Documents?

A briefing paper for O'Neill and obtained exclusively by ABCNEWS directed him to work on "keeping Saddam's finger off the trigger" by stopping imports of military technology. The Treasury Department is now investigating whether O'Neill removed classified documents from the department. He says he did not.

"I don't honestly think there's anything that's classified in those 19,000 documents," O'Neill said on NBC's Today Show today.