Former White House Counsel to President
Tim Sloan  /  AFP - Getty Images file
Former Nixon aide John Dean testified at Friday's Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on censuring President Bush.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 3/31/2006 3:45:51 PM ET 2006-03-31T20:45:51

In week three of his crusade to censure President Bush, Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisc., seemed to pick up one more supporter on Friday.

At a Judiciary Committee hearing on Feingold’s censure motion, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-VT. said for the first time that he was “inclined to believe” Feingold’s resolution was the appropriate sanction.

That would give Feingold four votes so far for the resolution.

With his star witness John Dean supporting him, Feingold contended that Bush is more of a threat to the Constitution than his GOP predecessor Richard Nixon was in the 1970s.

“Certainly there’s a greater threat to our republic in what’s going on here,” than there was with the 1972 Watergate break-in and the cover-up of that event, Feingold argued. He called the National Security Agency surveillance program part of “one of the greatest attempts to dismantle our system of government that we have seen in the history of our country.”

'We have a monarchy'
Feingold declared that if the Bush administration is correct in its assertion of presidential authority to conduct surveillance “we no longer have a constitutional system consisting of three co-equal branches of government, we have a monarchy.” 

Dean served as a White House Counsel during the Nixon administration and helped arrange the cover-up of the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters before he turned against Nixon and testified about the conspiracy.

Dean was charged with obstruction of justice and spent four months in prison for his role in the cover-up. He was also disbarred.

Feingold's resolution says that the Senate "does hereby censure George W. Bush, President of the United States, and does condemn his unlawful authorization of wiretaps of Americans within the United States without obtaining the court orders required by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978."

Feingold and some legal scholars contend that the NSA surveillance of al Qaida contacts within the United States is illegal.

But the Bush administration and other legal scholars say the program is not only necessary, but well within the president's powers as commander-in-chief under Article II of the Constitution.

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Specter's disdain for censure
Judiciary Committee chairman Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa. used the hearing to make clear his disdain for Feingold’s censure idea and his feeling that the censure furor is distracting attention from the work the committee must do in order to bring the NSA program under court scrutiny.

Specter is pushing his bill to have the court set up by FISA review the program.

Specter noted at the start of the hearing that some of Feingold’s critics have called his idea “frivolous,” and added, “I’m not prepared to say that, but I do think that there is no merit in it.”

Specter did not commit to having the 18 members of the committee vote on Feingold’s resolution.

He said “it is possible” that the committee might report out the resolution without approving it, simply to get it to the floor so all 100 could vote.

“I don’t think the resolution has much point to it,” he added. “It just doesn’t have much substance.”

Under the Senate’s rules there are ways for Majority Leader Bill Frist to bring the resolution to a vote, even if the Judiciary Committee takes no action. Amy Call, a spokeswoman for Frist, said, “He thinks it’s a good idea” for all 100 senators to vote on it.

Specter cited decisions by federal appeals courts which said that the FISA law “could not encroach on the president’s constitutional power” to order warrantless surveillance for foreign intelligence purposes and that the executive branch’s needs in foreign intelligence “are so compelling” that a warrant requirement would “unduly frustrate” the president in carrying out his intelligence responsibilities.

Dean's views on presidential power
Friday’s star witness, Dean, is the author of a book called Worse than Watergate, a wide-ranging indictment of Bush.

He mentioned to the committee that he has another book coming out in July, Conservatives without Conscience.

“I’m not really a partisan these days,” he told reporters who crowded around him after the hearing. He said he’s concerned about the institution of the Senate and the balance of power between the branches.

Other than Bush, he said, “no president I can find in the history of our country has really ever adopted a policy of expanding presidential powers for the sake of expanding presidential powers.”

Dean faced a rough grilling from Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. who mocked the idea that the Watergate break-in and cover-up were in any way comparable to the NSA program. “Nobody read the Constitution to say that Richard Nixon and you could break in to somebody’s private office,” Graham sharply told Dean, who replied that Nixon didn’t order the 1972 break-in and only found out about it afterwards, when he ordered the effort to cover up the crime.

“He covered up a crime he knew to be a crime,” Graham said,

“He covered it up for national security reasons,” Dean said to which Graham scornfully replied, “Give me a break.”

Demeaning the discussion?
Another witness, John Schmidt, a former associate attorney general in the Justice department under President Clinton, called censure a move that would “demean and undermine the serious discussion of this issue which we should be having.”

Schmidt got in his own shot at Dean by quoting Edward Levi, the attorney general under President Ford, who had in 1977 cited the need for a president to have broad foreign surveillance powers. Levi, said Schmidt, “came in to clean up the mess Mr. Dean and his colleagues left” after the Watergate affair.

Bush defender Sen. John Cornyn, R- Texas, assailed Dean calling him a “convicted felon” and accusing him of selling a book and his testimony being “part of the marketing effort.”

But Feingold noted that Dean had paid a price for his involvement “in a scheme of violation of the laws of this country by the president of the United States. He was a courageous voice that revealed that.”

Feingold demanded to know why former attorney general John Ashcroft was not testifying about the NSA surveillance. He said, “You know what word comes to mind, Mr. Chairman; it’s a word that first came into my consciousness in 1974: a cover up, it’s a cover up!”

At Friday’s hearing, only three of the committee’s eight Democrats showed up and Feingold’s Wisconsin colleague, Sen. Herb Kohl, left after a brief time without asking questions.

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