Bush Sought to Oust Hussein From Start, Ex-Official SaysBy RICHARD W. STEVENSONPublished: January 12, 2004WASHINGTON, Jan. 11 — President Bush was focused on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq from the start of his administration, more than seven months before the terrorist attacks that he later cited as the trigger for a more aggressive foreign policy, Paul H. O'Neill, Mr. Bush's first Treasury secretary, said in an interview broadcast on Sunday. "From the very beginning, there was a conviction that Saddam Hussein was a bad person and that he needed to go," Mr. O'Neill said in an interview with the CBS program "60 Minutes."Mr. O'Neill, who was dismissed by Mr. Bush more than a year ago over differences on economic policy, said Iraq was discussed at the first National Security Council meeting after Mr. Bush's inauguration. The tone at that meeting and others, Mr. O'Neill said, was "all about finding a way to do it," with no real questioning of why Mr. Hussein had to go or why it had to be done then. "For me, the notion of pre-emption, that the U.S. has the unilateral right to do whatever we decide to do, is a really huge leap," Mr. O'Neill said.Mr. O'Neill gave the interview to "60 Minutes" to promote a new book, "The Price of Loyalty," by Ron Suskind. Mr. O'Neill cooperated extensively on the book, turning over 19,000 documents from his two years as Treasury secretary, including transcripts of National Security Council meetings, Mr. Suskind told "60 Minutes."Mr. O'Neill also gave an interview to Time magazine, which quoted him as casting doubt on the strength of the evidence Mr. Bush cited in making the case for war with 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, speaking of his tenure in the administration. "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," he continued. "And I never saw anything in the intelligence that I would characterize as real evidence."Mr. O'Neill, a former chairman of Alcoa, served in the Nixon and Ford administrations and was close to Vice President Dick Cheney and Alan Greenspan, the Federal Reserve chairman. Mr. O'Neill had a rocky tenure as Treasury secretary. His departure came after he made it clear he differed with the White House over the need for more tax cuts. In his typically blunt style, he made no effort at the time to pretend he was not angry and hurt over being forced out.But the account of his service to Mr. Bush, as given to Mr. Suskind, whose book is to be published Tuesday, is the first by a former senior Bush administration official. It is sure to fuel questions from Mr. Bush's political opponents about the administration's rationale for invading Iraq, and to focus new attention on Mr. Bush's management style and the balance in the White House between politics and policy.New York Times