President Bush claimed yesterday that he was not expanding unchecked power of the executive branch of US government with his secret domestic spying program: “to say ‘unchecked power’ basically is ascribing some kind of dictatorial position to the president, which I strongly reject.” Bush defended the warrantless wiretapping of telephone conversations and email of US citizens as his “obligation to protect you.” Refusing to say how many people are under surveillance, what criteria must be met to begin surveillance, or if any terrorist plots had been subverted, Bush cited secret briefings with a few congressional leaders and internal administrative review as the only limits on a president’s power during war.
Citing his power under Article II of the US Constitution and the congressional resolution authorizing force after the 11 September 2001 attacks—specifically authorizing the president to use “all necessary and appropriate force”—Bush claimed his actions had absolute legal authorization.
Congress, for its part, mostly wasn’t buying it. Senate judiciary chair Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania) announced hearings next month on the issue; Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-West Virginia) released a secret letter he sent to Vice President Cheney in July 2003 objecting to the administration’s domestic spying activities; and Senator Russell Feingold (D-Wisconsin) broached the idea of a special prosecutor adding that Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales would have to recuse himself. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-California) quoted John Dean, President Nixon’s White House counsel during the Watergate era, as saying that Bush had admitted to an impeachable offense. For his part, the only investigation Bush was having any part of was the presumed inquiry by the Justice Department into the leak about the NSA program: “It was a shameful act for someone to disclose this very important program in a time of war. The fact that we’re discussing this program is helping the enemy.”