John Dean: Bush's wiretapping worse than Nixon's


Published: Saturday, April 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 31, 2006 at 10:05 p.m.

John W. Dean, Richard Nixon's White House lawyer, told senators Friday that President Bush's domestic spying exceeds the wrongdoing that toppled his former boss.

Bush, Dean told the Senate Judiciary Committee, should be censured and possibly impeached.

"Had the Senate or House, or both, censured or somehow warned Richard Nixon, the tragedy of Watergate might have been prevented," Dean told the Senate Judiciary Committee. "Hopefully the Senate will not sit by while even more serious abuses unfold before it."

Republicans and their witnesses rejected the comparison between Watergate and Bush's wiretapping program, and attributed Sen. Russell Feingold's censure resolution to posturing in a year of midterm elections.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said the comparison to Watergate is "apples and oranges" because Nixon's actions were more about saving himself and his presidency than national security.

"Quit trying to score political points," Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, shot across the aisle at committee Democrats.

In fact, only two Democrats have co-sponsored Feingold's resolution: Sens. Tom Harkin of Iowa and Barbara Boxer of California. The rest have distanced themselves from the proposal, with many saying the resolution is premature because a Senate Intelligence Committee investigation of the eavesdropping program has not concluded.

At issue is whether Bush's secretive domestic spying program violates the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Bush has said the National Security Agency's wiretapping program is aimed at finding terrorists before they strike on American soil. by tapping the phones of people making calls overseas. He has launched a criminal investigation to find out who leaked the program's existence to The New York Times, saying the report in December tipped off anyone who might be planning attacks.

Critics say Bush already has the ability to conduct wiretaps under the FISA law and any information gathered without a court order may be inadmissible at a trial.

Feingold's measure would condemn Bush's "unlawful authorization of wiretaps of Americans within the United States without obtaining the court orders required" by the FISA act.

"If we in the Congress don't stand up for ourselves and the American people, we become complicit in the lawbreaking," Feingold, D-Wis., told the panel. "The resolution of censure is the appropriate response."

Feingold summoned Dean to the hearing in part because the former White House counsel made his suspicions about the Bush administration clear long before the wiretapping program became public.

In his 2004 book, "Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush," Dean wrote that the former Texas governor began to evoke Nixonian memories with his strategies against Republican John McCain's primary challenge in South Carolina in 2000.

After The New York Times revealed the NSA program in December, Dean wrote that "Bush may have outdone Nixon" and may be worthy of impeachment.

"Nixon's illegal surveillance was limited; Bush's, it is developing, may be extraordinarily broad in scope," Dean wrote in a column for FindLaw.com in December.

Dean served four months in prison for his role in Watergate, a political scandal that involved illegal wiretapping, burglary and abuse of power aimed at Nixon enemies. Administration officials were implicated in the ensuing cover-up.

Nixon resigned Aug. 9, 1974, less than two weeks after the House Judiciary Committee began approving three articles of impeachment against him, charging obstruction of justice as well as abuse of power and withholding evidence.

Dean said Friday that the issue is one of checks and balances, adding Congress should pass some measure serving a warning to Bush if it can't stomach a censure resolution.

"The president needs to be reminded that separation of powers does not mean an isolation of powers," he said.

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