A U.S. Senate panel Friday held a hearing into proposed legislation to censure President Bush for his decision to order warrantless wiretapping of U.S. citizens. Among those who expressed support for the move was John Dean, President Nixon's lawyer during the Watergate scandal of the 1970s.
John Dean, who served four months in prison for his role in Watergate, the political scandal involving illegal wiretapping, burglary and abuse of power aimed at President Nixon's political opponents, says he backs the censure resolution against President Bush.
At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, he urged Congress to take seriously its check on the executive branch under the U.S. Constitution.
"There has been a growing tendency, and I started my career on Capitol Hill, to let the president do what he wants and to do so with virtually no oversight," he said. "I can tell you from the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue, that is very important to presidents. They take note of that when they are not being called to the mat. They push the envelope as far as they can."
Dean played a key role in the congressional impeachment investigation of President Nixon, which eventually led Nixon to resign from office in August 1974.
Dean has also written a book called Worse than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush.
The motion to censure President Bush has been introduced by Senator Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat and potential presidential candidate in 2008.
Feingold argues that the President overstepped the law when he ordered the National Security Agency to eavesdrop, without warrants, on phone calls and e-mails between Americans on U.S. soil and suspected terrorists overseas. He notes the program bypasses a special federal court whose approval is required under law for domestic wiretapping operations.
"The president must return to the law," said Mr. Feingold. "He must acknowledge and be held accountable for his illegal actions, and also for misleading the American people, both before and after the program was revealed. If we in the Congress do not stand up for ourselves and for the American people, we become complicit in the law-breaking."
President Bush defends the wiretapping program as an important tool in the war on terrorism, and says it is legal.
Senator Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, says the censure motion is based on misleading or false propositions. He expressed concern about the timing of the resolution.
"The United States is at war," said Mr. Hatch. "Our president has taken considered and measured steps that I believe are consistent with the law. I can only hope that this constitutionally suspect, and I believe inflammatory attempt to punish the president for leading this war on terror will not weaken his ability to do so."
Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, argues there are no grounds for censure, but he agreed to hold the hearing to allow for debate.
Although many Democrats and some Republicans have raised questions about the legality of the wiretapping program, Feingold's censure measure is not expected to get very far. Republicans, who control the chamber, are not likely to vote for it, and it is not clear how many Democrats support it.
A number of Democrats, some facing reelection this year, are concerned such action could alienate so-called "swing voters," voters who do not always vote along party lines.
A congressional censure is an official reprimand of the president. The Senate has only taken such action once, in 1834 against President Andrew Jackson in a banking dispute.