- The Washington Times - Friday, March 31, 2006

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy yesterday became the highest-ranking Democrat to support censuring President Bush over the White House’s warrantless eavesdropping program, as Republicans accused Democrats of imperiling national security for news sound bites.

Mr. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and his party’s ranking member on the Judiciary Committee, said yesterday during a hearing on the program that the president “secretly and systematically” violated laws that bar the nation’s intelligence agencies from spying on Americans without court approval.

“I have no doubt that such a conclusion will be history’s verdict,” said Mr. Leahy, who called the program “‘Alice in Wonderland’ gone amok.”

He said at the outset of yesterday’s hearing that he was “inclined” to support a censure resolution introduced by Sen. Russell D. Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat.

Watergate felon John W. Dean testified yesterday in support of the resolution. The former aide to President Nixon said he thinks impeachment in the case of Mr. Bush’s terrorist surveillance program is “premature” but that censure would be appropriate.

He began his testimony by saying that “it’s important that the committee sometimes hear from the dark side, that those of us from that perspective can add some insights that might not otherwise be available to a body like this.”

But Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, resurrected an article Mr. Dean wrote five days after the September 11 attacks in which he argued that “the president does not need congressional authority to respond.” The Constitution, Mr. Dean argued in a FindLaw article, “does not put the Congress in charge of counterterrorism, which is an executive function.”

Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, held the hearing in the high-capacity room reserved for major hearings such as Supreme Court nominations. But by the end of the 21/2-hour hearing, more Republican committee members had showed up than Democrats and the audience had thinned considerably.

The only Democrat to stay for the entire hearing was Mr. Feingold.

“What we have here, I think, is one of the greatest attempts to dismantle our system of government that we have seen in the history of our country,” he said.

Mr. Specter, while respectful, was skeptical.

“Some would say that the resolution by Senator Feingold to censure the president is frivolous,” he said. “I’m not prepared to say that, but I do think that there is no merit in it.”

The White House has said that Mr. Bush authorized the National Security Agency’s top-secret program to prevent terrorist strikes on America and that he has the “inherent authority” in the Constitution to pursue national security intelligence without court approval. The administration also has said the program was used only to intercept calls between terror-linked suspects and people in the United States.

Mr. Feingold’s censure resolution accuses Mr. Bush of violating the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which mandates court approval for domestic spying.

Before yesterday, just two other Democrats in the Senate had said they would support the resolution — Barbara Boxer of California and Tom Harkin of Iowa.

Republicans viewed yesterday’s hearing as little more than a stunt to embarrass the president. And Mr. Dean’s presence was enough to draw the ire of Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican.

“One of the witnesses that’s going to testify — that’s selling a book — is a convicted felon,” Mr. Cornyn said. “It strikes me as odd that the Judiciary Committee is giving [an] audience … to somebody under those circumstances as part of their marketing efforts.”

By the time Mr. Dean began his testimony, Mr. Cornyn had left the hearing, leading Mr. Feingold to accuse him of “hit and run.”

Yet Mr. Cornyn’s charges weren’t entirely without merit.

Before the hearings began, Mr. Dean pulled aside two photographers furiously snapping pictures of him and told them he needed a picture of himself for his forthcoming book’s dust jacket.

After the hearing, Mr. Dean told reporters that his book, “Conservatives Without a Conscience: Bush, Cheney, and the Radical Republicans Who Are Destroying the Nation’s Democratic Values,” will include a reference to Mr. Cornyn, but he declined to elaborate.

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