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Is Bush's illegal warrantless wiretapping Worse than Watergate?

Reported by Chrish - April 3, 2006

Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace had different treatments for his first two guests today 4/2/06. Democratic Senator Russ Feingold was put on the defensive and was asked challenging questions while Republican Lindsey Graham was simply allowed to expound on his thoughts - repeatedly, I might add.

Wallace began the interview by challenging Feingold's and John Dean's assertions that the warrantless wiretapping is "Worse than Watergate", which not coincidentally is the title of Dean's book about the Bush administration. The book was published in April of 2004, so Dean was making this comparison even before the illegal wiretapping became known. Wallace confronted Feingold with "Senator, do you really believe there is any comparison?"

Feingold replied that he thinks this is worse, not in the terms of personal conduct, but because what the Bush administration is doing is basically changing the nature of American government. He accused Bush of trying to turn the office into an imperial presidency, and said it is necessary for Congress to stand up and demand a return to checks and balances.

Wallace was not done with the Watergate comparison. He still had talking points to make, to wit: "Did President Nixon brief members of Congress more than a dozen times before and during Watergate?"

When Feingold began to answer and point out the irrelevancy of that particular comparison, "Certainly not, and that's not the point. In fact, President Bush broke the law when he did not brief the entire Intelligence Committee...", Wallace interrupted him and made a speechlet that got the defense talking points laid out: "But wait, wait, wait. That's not — but Senator, I mean the fact is, President Bush briefed the congressional leaders, both House and Senate, Republican and Democrat, also the leaders of the Intelligence Committee, Republican and Democrat, both House and Senate, more than a dozen times before and during this NSA wiretap program. Isn't that a big difference?"

Feingold said that breaking the law is breaking the law, and telling someone you're doing it doesn't change that. He gets in the point that is frequently distorted on FOX, that we ALL support wiretapping terrorists, but Bush has to be called on his "frightful assault on our system of government." He laments that at this time, with both houses of Congress under Republican control, that none are willing to stand up and say that Bush needs to bring the program back into compliance with the law.

Now sounding like a broken record, Wallace again returns to the Watergate comparison. It is obvious that his intention is to highlight the ways in which this case is NOT like Watergate: "Let me explore that Watergate comparison a little bit more. Has President Bush created an enemies list? Has he used the federal government to punish his political opponents? Has he authorized break-ins of his political enemies?"

Comment: At this point I was hoping Feingold would say "I don't know WHO has been spied on. Without court oversight he very well may have authorized data mining of war protesters, prominent Democrats, off the charts left liberal smear site operators, even the DNC. We don't know; that's the problem."

He didn't but he made HIS point clearly and conveyed the serious nature of his charges:

"Well, again, Chris, this is not a criticism of the president as some sort of criminal law, day-to-day problem, like President Nixon had. This is really a much bigger deal. As George Will has said, this was the very reason for the revolution that we had in this country, is that we did not want a monarchical president. So I think these days, we look at the Nixon impeachment and the Clinton impeachment, we forget what the real reason for high crimes and misdemeanors was, to make sure that the president doesn't cause himself to be involved in personal misconduct, but that he doesn't try to achieve a power that is like King George III. So this is actually, even though in terms of the president's personal conduct not as serious, much more dangerous to our system of government, to our republic, and frankly, Chris, it weakens us in the fight against terrorism, to have a president who's thumbing his nose at the laws of this country. It isn't good for us."

Wallace, returning again to Bush's dozen+ briefings to the Congressional leaders, said that before Bush implemented the plan the White House asked Congress if they should change the program and they declined, saying it would "leak". From that, Wallace sought to place the blame on them and asked if they aren't complicit in the lawbreaking? Comment: Note he didn't use "alleged" or "so-called"; that is an acknowledgment that what we are talking about here IS lawbreaking.

Feingold reminded Wallace that Bush "broke the statute from 1947 by not fully informing the entire Intelligence Committees", not the main point but another nail in the coffin, and the briefed members are not allowed to talk about what they've learned. To suggest that Bush be excused because he briefed a few members who couldn't talk about it misses the point. He refers to the excuse that when Congress authorized use of force in Afghanistan, they did not authorize this too, and said that idea has been "laughed at in the halls of Congress." He reiterated that Bush can and should do what's needed to fight terrorism under the FISA laws, and everyone supports that.

Wallace took another tack, demanding of Feingold "Have you been briefed on the program? (the "NSA warrantless wiretap program that the president authorized." ) and "Do you know how the NSA decides whom to wiretap? Do you have any evidence that the civil liberties of any innocent Americans have been violated?"

Feingold answered, in part, " I have been briefed to some degree, but certainly not completely. ... I know some things about it, but I'm not able to talk about it. What I can tell you is this: Is that I am absolutely convinced, after five hearings, three in the Judiciary Committee, two in the Intelligence Committee, that there is no legal basis for this. I may not know all the details, but it's clear from everything we've heard that you can't sort of create a new law or a new statute or a new constitutional provision."

Wallace continued to defend "the program", choosing to quote two Democrats, Senator Feinstein and Congresswoman Harman, who were more fully briefed and who have said it is "impressive" and "essential to U.S. national security." He then chided Feingold, saying "Senator, it seems that the people who are criticizing this program are the ones who know the least about it."

Feingold agreed again that wiretapping is essential to national security but stressed that it needs to be done with court checks and balances, within FISA law, and he knows that his Democratic colleagues feel the same.

Wallace got a little whiny and hyperbolic (for him) after that, asking why not just change the law, why does there have to be censure of a president during a time of war?

Feingold made his closing argument:

"Well, how — are we going to have a system, Chris, where whenever the president wants to make up his own law, he goes ahead and does it, and we say, gee, Mr. President, you broke the law, that's too bad. Let's make a law to make what you're doing legal. What kind of a government is that? What kind of a system is that? And what kind of a message to our kids? If you don't like the law, just make up whatever you want to do and keep going. Frankly, it's outrageous. And if there isn't some accountability, apart from the need to possibly look at legislation, if there isn't some statement that the president can't just make up his own laws, what have we come to? Who are we? It's an outrage, and every member of Congress and every American should say to the president, Mr. President, we respect your commitment in the fight against terrorism, but you've got to return to the law. You've got to return to the way we do things in this system. "

The rest of the interview was focused on the non-attendance at the censure hearings of five big-name Democrats, and speculation on why they didn't show. Feingold said that Arlen Specter intentionally scheduled the hearing for Friday afternoon, when many on Capitol Hill have already left for the weekend. Wallace impugned Feingold's motive, repeating the charge that he is doing it to bring attention to himself for a possible White House run in 2008. Feingold protested, citing his own non-partisan reputation and telling Wallace that he would do the same if a Democratic president held him/herself above the law. He ended with a speechlet of his own:

"You can't just create whatever laws you want. We have to go through the system of government we've always had. You know, the Bill of Rights and the Constitution were not repealed on 9/11, and we all are unified in fighting the terrorists. But we're not going to give the terrorists the victory of destroying our own system of government in order to satisfy a White House that has very grandiose views of the extent of their powers."

You can see for yourself from the questions that Wallace was playing the role of White House advocate, challenging Feingold's motives, his grounds for calling for censure, his understanding of what has transpired, and the comparison to Watergate.

The following segment with Lindsey Graham was more in line with the White House/FOX message.

Wallace twisted Feingold's words with his own and said to Graham " Senator Feingold says if Congress doesn't stand up for yourself, you become complicit in the lawbreaking." This left Graham to defend himself against charges Feingold never made. He said "censuring the program" would kill the program, called the comparison to Watergate absurd and said the discussion of changing the law to fit Bush's actions is a "robust debate." He stated that the goal of this "program" is to find foreign enemies who want to kill us, not domestic enemies who are against the president. Comment: Odd, I thought domestic enemies are against the Constitution and the American people.

He says we can have a healthy debate about when we do and don't need warrants (Comment: Simple - always.). He warns that if Congress "starts censuring the president every time they have a legal difference with him they're going to weaken the presidency. This is a very bad idea....an over-reaction."

Wallace's next question was much like the first: "What about the argument that Feingold makes, that Bush broke the law, and Congress has to stand up against him?"

Graham replied with a few straw man questions of his own: when does a president's power begin and end in a time of war? Could Congress have made Truman rehire MacArthur? Could we tell the president to send every target list over before you bomb everybody? These kind of questions are subject to legal debate. He them basically rephrased and repeated his points: censure will weaken the presidency and divide the country, it is a political stunt, and any comparison to Watergate is absurd.

These two segments combined were drills of White House talking points: censure is bad for the country, all we need to do is debate and maybe fix the broken law, and comparisons to Watergate are absurd. Feingold was allowed to make his points but they were first challenged by the host and then rebutted by the Republican guest, who got in all talking points three times and then some.

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