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AMERICAN MORNING

Controversy for President Bush Back Home

Aired January 13, 2004 - 08:15   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: President Bush is in Mexico, but he cannot get away from the controversy back at home. Former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill's new book says that the Bush administration wanted to move against Iraq from the very beginning, before 9/11. But yesterday the president said his Iraq policy changed after the terrorist attacks.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Like the previous administration, we were for regime change and in the initial stages of the administration, as you might remember, we were dealing with desert badger or flyovers and fly betweens and looks. And so we were fashioning policy along those lines and then all of a sudden September the 11th hit. And as the president of the United States, my most solemn obligation is to protect the security of the American public.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: The president would not say whether he felt betrayed by his former treasury chief.

Ken Auletta covers the media for the "New Yorker."

His article in the current issue is called "Fortress Bush: How the White House Keeps the Press Under Control."

Auletta has written a new book, as well. It's called "Back Story: Inside the Business of News."

Joining us this morning.

Nice to see you.

Thanks for being with us.

KEN AULETTA, "THE NEW YORKER": Good to see you.

O'BRIEN: Surprise you at all that less than 24 hours after former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill is on "60 Minutes" talking about some of these issues the Treasury Department says they're going to start a probe, maybe even an investigation, into some of these classified documents getting into this report?

AULETTA: It doesn't surprise me at all. It's...

O'BRIEN: Why not?

AULETTA: Well, for two reasons. One, it was shocking when you saw on "60 Minutes" a secret or classified document. So it is a legitimate question to ask.

Second, they work for George W. Bush and the Treasury Department is saying hey, you know, there's a penalty for this and we're going to look at you. And it casts aspersions, negative aspersions, on Paul O'Neill.

O'BRIEN: The Treasury Department has said we did not consult with the White House. They had nothing...

AULETTA: You don't have to.

O'BRIEN: ... to do with this decision-making process.

AULETTA: Of course. I'm sure that's true. But it's like self -- self-anticipatory censorship. I mean...

O'BRIEN: You know your boss is going to be happy?

AULETTA: Yes, of course. And you know Bush is happy about that. He's taking the high road, I don't have to respond, Paul O'Neill was a fine man. You know he doesn't believe that any more than Paul O'Neill believes, as he said on "60 Minutes," I'm shocked that anyone would be shocked that I was critical.

O'BRIEN: Do you think he was being disingenuous when he said as long as you're speaking the truth, why would anyone be surprised?

AULETTA: I think he was disingenuous or naive, and probably both. And I think Bush is being disingenuous when he says he has nothing but good things to say about O'Neill.

O'BRIEN: Your most recent article in the "New Yorker" is really a fascinating inside look at the White House reporters, who are often frustrated in their attempts to get information out of the Bush White House because, of course, it seems that, to some degree, secrecy and loyalty are really important to that administration.

According to "60 Minutes," Defense Secretary Rumsfeld warned, encouraged against, shall we say, Paul O'Neill to take part in this book.

Was that a threat, do you think?

AULETTA: No. I mean I think -- I mean I wasn't there. I didn't listen to the conversation. But Rumsfeld and he go back. They served in previous administrations. He has every right in a nation of free speech to call up his old friend, O'Neill, and urge him not to do it. It may be carrying water for George W. Bush, but that's legitimate. I mean I don't think we should criminalize free speech.

O'BRIEN: How do you think the White House is reacting now, in light of all that you've written in this article about valuing loyalty? I mean talk about biting the hand that fed you, to some degree, before, of course, he was fired, Paul O'Neill taking, you know, a whack at his boss, ex-boss.

AULETTA: Well, he took whacks at his boss when he was at treasury. I mean he disagreed with the tax cuts and said it would increase the deficit. And, by the way, the deficit has increased to a record. So, O'Neill was fired in part because he was critical of the Bush administration.

He's now come out with what could be considered a kiss and tell book, or cooperating with a book that sounds like kiss and tell, and Bush pretends that he's not upset, but it's very bad for George Bush. I mean it's basically saying he's an inattentive, incurious president. And that's not good news for him.

Now, if they can turn it around and make O'Neill the issue rather than Bush the issue, then they come out OK.

O'BRIEN: Do you think that O'Neill is out for revenge on his former boss? Do you think that now everything we've heard from the White House is revenge for what Paul O'Neill has done?

AULETTA: I think Paul O'Neill...

O'BRIEN: Too simplistically?

AULETTA: I think Paul O'Neill is obviously bitter and feels that Bush has great weaknesses and he probably feels righteously that the public ought to know about this. But he also is obviously upset that he was fired. The Bush administration is furious. I mean they pride, as you suggest, loyalty. So they're furious about that.

O'BRIEN: As you suggested in your article in the "New Yorker" this (UNINTELLIGIBLE)...

AULETTA: No, team Bush believes in loyalty. You don't go out to Georgetown dinner parties. You don't make nice to them, meaning us, the press, and you do well with me.

O'BRIEN: Ken Auletta of the "New Yorker." And a new book out, as well.

It's nice to see you.

AULETTA: Thank you.

O'BRIEN: Thanks for being with us this morning.

Appreciate it.

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