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Last Updated: Monday, 12 January, 2004, 00:28 GMT
Bush 'plotted Iraq war from start'
President Bush in the Oval Office
The administration has brushed aside Paul O'Neill's comments
A top official sacked from the US Government has accused President Bush of planning for an invasion of Iraq within days of coming to office.

Former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill said Mr Bush was looking for an excuse to oust Saddam Hussein.

As a member of the president's National Security team he said he never saw any evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

Mr O'Neill also portrayed the president as unwilling to engage in debate - a charge rejected by Bush officials.

Not since Julius Caesar have I seen such a blatant stab in the back - et tu, Mr O'Neill?
Mark Foley
Republican Representative

"From the very beginning, there was a conviction Saddam Hussein was a bad person and he needed to go," the former treasury secretary said in an interview broadcast by CBS News on Sunday.

Mr O'Neill was in office for nearly two years before he was sacked over differences with the administration in December 2002.

The BBC's Washington correspondent, Justin Webb, says his remarks represent the most sustained and damaging criticism of the Bush administration from a former insider since the president came to power.

Mr O'Neill gives an unflattering account of Mr Bush's leadership style, saying that at cabinet meetings the president was like a blind man in a room full of deaf people.

But the current Commerce Secretary, Don Evans, told CNN that the president liked nothing better than vigorous discussion in cabinet.

"He drives the meetings, tough questions, he likes dissent, he likes to see debate," he said.

Republican Representative Mark Foley of Florida accused Mr O'Neill of delivering a "blatant stab in the back".

'What weapons?'

The former secretary gave his interview ahead of the publication of a book, The Price of Loyalty, which paints an insider's view of the administration based in part on his testimony.

Paul O'Neill
In the 23 months I was there, I never saw anything that I would characterise as evidence of weapons of mass destruction
Paul O'Neill

In his interview, Mr O'Neill said the Bush administration appeared to have assumed the right to act as it wished abroad.

"For me, the notion of pre-emption, that the US has the unilateral right to do whatever we decide to do, is a really huge leap," he said.

He was also highly critical of Mr Bush's tax cuts policy.

The author of the new book, Ron Suskind, told CBS that he had received documents from Mr O'Neill and others which showed that during Mr Bush's first 100 days in office his officials were already looking at military options to remove Saddam from power.

Officials were looking into post-war contingencies such as peacekeeping troops, war crimes tribunals and the future of Iraq's oil, according to the documents.

Mr Suskind referred to a memo entitled "Plan for Post-Saddam Iraq".

Elusive WMD

In a separate interview for Time magazine, Mr O'Neill said he had never come across any evidence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) during his period in office.

"In the 23 months I was there, I never saw anything that I would characterise as evidence of weapons of mass destruction," the former member of the president's national security team said.

"To me there is a difference between real evidence and everything else."

Coalition forces have found no hard proof of continuing WMD programmes since the invasion of Iraq in March.

Shells with suspected traces of poisonous gas have been uncovered by Danish troops in the south, but they appear to date from the war with Iran in the 1980s.

The BBC's Katty Kay in Washington
"The loyal aide has turned against his president"

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