March 31, 2006

John Dean backs bid to censure Bush

By Thomas Ferraro

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Former White House counsel John Dean
said on Friday that U.S. President George W. Bush's domestic
spying program raised more concerns about abuse of power than
the Watergate scandal that toppled his boss Richard Nixon.

Dean, who served time in prison for his role in Watergate,
testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on behalf of a
seemingly futile Democratic bid to censure Bush for the
eavesdropping program that is part of his war on terrorism.

"I appear today because I believe, with good reason, that
the situation is even more serious," Dean, whose testimony
three decades ago help lead to Nixon's resignation in 1974,
said in support of the seldom-used measure to discredit a

Dean is also the author of a book titled "Worse than
Watergate," which slams the Bush administration as obsessed
with politics and secrecy.

"This is not Watergate," countered another witness, Lee
Casey, who served in earlier Republican administrations. Casey
argued Bush had the power to authorize the eavesdropping
program shortly after the September 11 attacks.

Republicans have dismissed the censure resolution as a
political stunt, while many Democrats have distanced themselves
from it as they jockey for position on the issue of national
security and near the November congressional elections.

Sen. Russ Feingold, a maverick Wisconsin Democrat, offered
the censure resolution this month. He charged that without
getting court approval, Bush violated the law by secretly
ordering the program to listen to phone conversations with
suspected al Qaeda members outside the country.

Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania
Republican, began the hearing by declaring that the resolution
has no merit.

"But it provides a forum" for discussion, said Specter.

Like many members of the U.S. Congress, Specter has voiced
concerns about the program that monitors overseas phone calls
and e-mails of U.S. citizens while in pursuit of al Qaeda.

The 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA,
made spying on American citizens in the United States illegal
without the approval of a special secret court.


Yet the administration contends, with the support of much
of the Republican-led Senate, that Bush has the constitutional
authority to conduct the program.

Feingold again rejected that, and noted an effort by
Specter to require the FISA court to review the program.

"Where we disagree, apparently, is whether the president's
authority under Article II of the Constitution allows him to
authorize warrantless surveillance without complying with
FISA," Feingold told Specter.

"I do not believe he has such authority," Feingold said.

Feingold's resolution has rallied the support of liberal
groups but has also galvanized conservatives backing the
embattled war-time president.

So far, just two of Feingold's 43 fellow Senate Democrats,
have signed on as co-sponsors of the censure move.

But Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, ranking Democrat on the
Judiciary Committee, said on Friday he would also back
condemning Bush for "secretly and systematically violating the

Dean, one of five witnesses called to testify, said, "I
recall a morning ... March 21, 1973, that I tried to warn a
president of the consequences of staying his course."

"I failed to convince President Nixon that morning and the
rest, as they say, is history," Dean said.

Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, rejected comparisons
of Bush to Watergate, and said: "Today's hearing is our
committee's first -- and hopefully last -- discussion of
Senator Feingold's resolution."

The panel must decide, however, whether to send it to the
full Senate where it seems certain to be defeated.

(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan)