NEWS | OPINIONS | SPORTS | ARTS & LIVING | Discussions | Photos & Video | City Guide | CLASSIFIEDS | JOBS | CARS | REAL ESTATE
Return of the 'I-Word'

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, December 21, 2005; 1:21 PM

The "I-word" is back.

The revelation that President Bush secretly authorized a domestic spying program has incited a handful of Congressional Democrats to discuss his possible impeachment. And while continued Republican control of Congress makes such a move extremely unlikely, the word is reemerging into mainstream political discourse.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) sent a letter on Monday to four unidentified presidential scholars, asking them whether they think Bush's authorization of warrantless domestic spying amounted to an impeachable offense.

Boxer wrote that her interest was sparked after former Nixon White House counsel John Dean said the surveillance order was an impeachable offence.

"I take very seriously Mr. Dean's comments, as I view him to be an expert on presidential abuse of power. I am expecting a full airing of this matter by the Senate in the very near future," she wrote.

Todd Gillman writes in the Dallas Morning News: "Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., suggested that Mr. Bush's actions could justify impeachment. The longtime civil rights leader said the spying program evokes 'the dark past when our government spied on civil rights leaders and Vietnam War protesters,' adding that he believed Mr. Bush violated the law. 'There is no question that the U.S. Congress has impeached presidents for lesser offenses,' he said."

Ron Hutcheson writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers that "some legal experts asserted that Bush broke the law on a scale that could warrant his impeachment.

"(TM)'The president's dead wrong. It's not a close question. Federal law is clear,' said Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University and a specialist in surveillance law. 'When the president admits that he violated federal law, that raises serious constitutional questions of high crimes and misdemeanors.'

"There's little enthusiasm for impeachment in the Republican-controlled Congress, but few lawmakers have rallied to Bush's defense."

Here's commentator Jack Cafferty on CNN yesterday: "If you listen carefully, you can hear the word impeachment. Two congressional Democrats are using it. And they're not the only ones."

Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter writes about the spying program : "This will all play out eventually in congressional committees and in the United States Supreme Court. If the Democrats regain control of Congress, there may even be articles of impeachment introduced. Similar abuse of power was part of the impeachment charge brought against Richard Nixon in 1974."

(Alter also reports "that on December 6, Bush summoned [New York] Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger and executive editor Bill Keller to the Oval Office in a futile attempt to talk them out of running" the Dec. 16 Times story that first reported Bush's secret authorization of the eavesdropping.)

Liberal columnist Joe Conason writes in the New York Observer: "Until Mr. Bush openly proclaimed as commander in chief that he can brush aside the law, cries for impeachment were heard only on the political fringe, although most Americans have long since realized that he misled America into war. Much as he is disliked and disdained by liberals, even they have shown little enthusiasm for impeachment. In addition to the obvious obstacle of a Republican-controlled Congress, there appeared to be no firm proof of an offense that justified such action. To mention the word was to be dismissed -- even by people who believe that this President may well have committed 'high crimes and misdemeanors.' . . .

"As political strategy and as public policy, the impeachment of Mr. Bush is an unappealing prospect. (Besides, if he could be thrown out somehow, who would want Dick Cheney to succeed him?) And yet, the actions and attitudes of this President raise the question of how else we can preserve the bedrock principles of a democratic republic."

Even conservative Jonah Goldberg , writing in the National Review Online, is talking about impeachment -- except he's kidding.

"In the wake of the revelation that President Bush ordered secret surveillance of some Americans -- without a warrant or statutory authority -- some commentators are suggesting that his presidency is in dire trouble. Well, I have one idea for a pick-me-up that will put his approval ratings into at least the mid-60s: Impeach him. . . .

"The main reason Bush's poll numbers would skyrocket if he were impeached is that at the end of the day the American people will support what he did. The legal defense of Bush's ongoing use of warrantless wiretaps is debatable. But the political case for what he did is rock-solid."

Another Grievance

And it's not just the spying scandal that is upsetting Bush's most ardent Congressional critics and provoking the I-word.

The Associated Press reports: "Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., called Tuesday for Congress to censure President Bush and Vice President Cheney, saying they misled lawmakers on the decision to go to war in Iraq.

"Conyers, the senior Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, introduced resolutions creating a panel to investigate the Bush administration's handling of the Iraq war and separate measures censuring Bush and Cheney. . . .

"Republican National Committee spokeswoman Ann Marie Hauser said if Conyers 'spent half the time condemning terrorism that he does condemning the President of the United States, he would be a credible voice in the war on terror.' "

Conyers released a Democratic staff report that concludes that "there is substantial evidence the President, the Vice-President and other high ranking members of the Bush Administration misled Congress and the American people regarding the decision to go to war in Iraq; misstated and manipulated intelligence information regarding the justification for such war; countenanced torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in Iraq; and permitted inappropriate retaliation against critics of their Administration. . . .

"While these charges clearly rise to the level of impeachable misconduct, because the Bush Administration and the Republican-controlled Congress have blocked the ability of Members to obtain information directly from the Administration concerning these matters, more investigatory authority is needed before recommendations can be made regarding specific Articles of Impeachment."

Why Not Ask?

Is it time for mainstream news organizations to start asking the public how they feel about impeachment?

The Zogby poll asked about it in July, and found that more than four in 10 Americans said that if Bush did not tell the truth about his reasons for going to war with Iraq, Congress should consider holding him accountable through impeachment.

That poll got almost no media attention. Since then, the anti-Bush Web site afterdowningstreet.org has commissioned several other reliable pollsters to keep asking. The most recent poll, by Rasmussen Reports , asked flat-out: "Should President Bush be impeached and removed from office?" And 32 percent of Americans said yes.

Washington Post pollster Richard Morin said in a Live Online discussion yesterday: "We do not ask about impeachment because it is not a serious option or a topic of considered discussion -- witness the fact that no member of congressional Democratic leadership or any of the serious Democratic presidential candidates in '08 are calling for Bush's impeachment. When it is or they are, we will ask about it in our polls."

Morin complained that he and other pollsters have been the "target of a campaign organized by a Democratic Web site demanding that we ask a question about impeaching Bush in our polls." And Morin got angry at all the people posting to his Live Online yesterday asking him why he won't ask about impeachment.

But there's no reason to get mad.

And there's nothing wrong with asking the question.

Live Online

I'm Live Online today at 1 p.m. ET. I look forward to responding to your questions and comments . And I won't get mad at any of them, I promise.

Poll Watch

Morin was primarily online yesterday to discuss the latest Washington Post poll. As Dan Balz and Morin wrote in yesterday's Post: "President Bush's approval rating has surged in recent weeks, reversing what had been an extended period of decline. . . .

"Bush's overall approval rating rose to 47 percent, from 39 percent in early November, with 52 percent saying they disapprove of how he is handling his job."

By contrast, Susan Page wrote in USA Today: "Bush's job-approval rating was 41%, a bit higher than his historic low of 37% last month but down a point or two from earlier in December."

The Post poll was conducted Thursday through Sunday; the Gallup Poll was taken Friday through Sunday.

Spying Updates

Carol D. Leonnig and Dafna Linzer write in The Washington Post: "A federal judge has resigned from the court that oversees government surveillance in intelligence cases in protest of President Bush's secret authorization of a domestic spying program, according to two sources."

James Risen and Eric Lichtblau write in the New York Times: "A surveillance program approved by President Bush to conduct eavesdropping without warrants has captured what are purely domestic communications in some cases, despite a requirement by the White House that one end of the intercepted conversations take place on foreign soil, officials say."

Douglas Jehl writes in the New York Times: "The limited oral briefings provided by the White House to a handful of lawmakers about the domestic eavesdropping program may not have fulfilled a legal requirement under the National Security Act that calls for such reports to be in written form, Congressional officials from both parties said on Tuesday."

Cheney Speaks

Richard W. Stevenson and Adam Liptak write in the New York Times: "In his first discussion of the underpinnings of the Bush administration's decision to eavesdrop without warrants on communications from the United States to other countries, Vice President Dick Cheney on Tuesday cast the action as part of a broader effort to reassert powers of the presidency that he said had been dangerously eroded in the years after Vietnam and Watergate.

"Talking with reporters on Air Force Two as he flew from Pakistan to Oman, Mr. Cheney spoke in far broader terms about the effort to expand the powers of the executive than President Bush did on Monday during an hourlong news conference. . . .

"Mr. Cheney directly linked the effort to bolster the president's wartime authority to the nation's safety since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

" 'You know,' he said, 'it's not an accident that we haven't been hit in four years.' "

Maura Reynolds writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Cheney dismissed the idea that Americans were concerned about a potential abuse of power by the administration, saying that any backlash would probably punish the president's critics, not Bush."

Here's the must-read full text of Cheney's remarks to the pool.

In his typically unsubtle way, Cheney suggested that anyone opposed to the secret NSA order is being oblivious to the threat of terror, and that there is no middle ground.

"Now we've gotten to the point where four years beyond the attack, people are saying, well, gee, maybe there's not a threat here after all, and so we've got people suggesting we shouldn't be doing what we're doing with respect to the NSA program," he said. "Either we're serious about fighting the war on terror or we're not."

Cheney also held a short interview with CNN's Dana Bash : "It is good solid sound policy. It is, I'm convinced, one of the reasons we have not been attacked for the last four years. It's absolutely the right thing to do," he said. "It has saved thousands of lives."

Executive Power

Peter Baker and Jim VandeHei write in The Washington Post: "The clash over the secret domestic spying program is one slice of a broader struggle over the power of the presidency that has animated the Bush administration. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney came to office convinced that the authority of the presidency had eroded and have spent the past five years trying to reclaim it.

"From shielding energy policy deliberations to setting up military tribunals without court involvement, Bush, with Cheney's encouragement, has taken what scholars call a more expansive view of his role than any commander in chief in decades. With few exceptions, Congress and the courts have largely stayed out of the way, deferential to the argument that a president needs free rein, especially in wartime."

But, Baker and VandeHei write: "Scholars such as Andrew Rudalevige, author of 'The New Imperial Presidency,' say the presidency had recovered long before Cheney returned to the White House in 2001. The War Powers Act, the legislative veto, the independent counsel statute and other legacies of the 1970s had all been discarded in one form or another."

Monday's Press Conference

Here's the text of Bush's hastily-called press conference Monday morning.

Washington Post reporter Peter Baker's question was the only one that really appeared to rattle the president:

"Q Thank you, Mr. President. I wonder if you can tell us today, sir, what, if any, limits you believe there are or should be on the powers of a President during a war, at wartime? And if the global war on terror is going to last for decades, as has been forecast, does that mean that we're going to see, therefore, a more or less permanent expansion of the unchecked power of the executive in American society?

"THE PRESIDENT: First of all, I disagree with your assertion of "unchecked power."

"Q Well --

"THE PRESIDENT: Hold on a second, please. There is the check of people being sworn to uphold the law, for starters. There is oversight. We're talking to Congress all the time, and on this program, to suggest there's unchecked power is not listening to what I'm telling you. I'm telling you, we have briefed the United States Congress on this program a dozen times.

"This is an awesome responsibility to make decisions on behalf of the American people, and I understand that, Peter. And we'll continue to work with the Congress, as well as people within our own administration, to constantly monitor programs such as the one I described to you, to make sure that we're protecting the civil liberties of the United States. To say 'unchecked power' basically is ascribing some kind of dictatorial position to the President, which I strongly reject.

"Q What limits do you --

"THE PRESIDENT: I just described limits on this particular program, Peter. And that's what's important for the American people to understand. I am doing what you expect me to do, and at the same time, safeguarding the civil liberties of the country."

Then Bush called on someone else.

Baker and Charles Babington wrote in Tuesday's Washington Post: "Bush's remarks left many critics unassuaged and many questions unanswered. The president offered no details about how many people are under surveillance, what standard must be met to intercept communications or what terrorist plots have been disrupted as a result of the program.

"Nor did he explain why the current system is not quick enough to meet the needs of the fight against terrorism. Under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the NSA in urgent situations can already eavesdrop on international telephone calls for 72 hours without a warrant, as long as it goes to a secret intelligence court by the end of that period for retroactive permission. Since the law was passed in 1978 after intelligence scandals, the court has rejected just five of 18,748 requests for wiretaps and search warrants, according to the government. . . .

"In asserting the legality of the program, Bush cited his power under Article II of the Constitution as well as the resolution authorizing force passed by Congress after the Sept. 11 attacks. The resolution never mentions such surveillance, but Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales said it is implicit. . . .

" 'This is not a backdoor approach,' Gonzales said at the White House. 'We believe Congress has authorized this kind of surveillance.' He acknowledged that the administration discussed introducing legislation explicitly permitting such domestic spying but decided against it because it 'would be difficult, if not impossible' to pass."

Bad Analogy

Daniel Benjamin writes in Slate about problems with the analogy Bush used -- twice -- to show just how damaging the leak about his secret order could be.

The leak to the Washington Times that resulted in Osama bin Laden abandoning his satellite phone "was a classic case of 'sources and methods' being compromised," Benjamin writes.

Not so the NSA leak. "This is not about novel sources and methods -- the same collection would have occurred if the administration obtained warrants -- it is a matter of legality and legitimacy. There appears to be no way in which loose lips about these intercepts will sink ships. They may, however, put a large hole in the administration's hull."

Bad Example

Josh Meyer writes in the Los Angeles Times: "In his radio address Saturday, Bush said two of the hijackers who helped fly a jet into the Pentagon -- Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar -- had communicated with suspected Al Qaeda members overseas while they were living in the U.S.

" 'But we didn't know they were here until it was too late,' Bush said. 'The authorization I gave the National Security Agency after Sept. 11 helped address that problem in a way that is fully consistent with my constitutional responsibilities and authorities.'

"But some current and former high-ranking U.S. counter-terrorism officials say that the still-classified details of the case undermine the president's rationale for the recently disclosed domestic spying program."

Contradiction Watch

On CNN yesterday afternoon:

"[Suzanne] MALVEAUX: In April of 2004, in a speech addressing the Patriot Act, the president tried to reassure Americans their civil liberties were being protected, but he failed to mention the secret wiretapping program.

"GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Anytime you hear the United States government talking about wiretap, it requires -- a wiretap requires a court order. Nothing has changed, by the way. When we're talking about chasing down terrorists, we're talking about getting a court order before we do so.

"MALVEAUX: Asked whether the president was being forthcoming by not mentioning there had been exceptions, his press secretary said. . . .

"SCOTT MCCLELLAN, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I reject that suggestion. . . .

"MALVEAUX: Now, I just got off the phone with Scott McClellan who has since clarified this and explained this a little bit further. He said there are two separate things that are happening here. There's the Patriot Act that the president specifically was talking about in that speech. And then of course, there's the NSA, the National Security Agency and the specific program that has become such a point of controversy here.

So Wolf, what Scott McClellan is saying is the president did not mean and did not mislead the public by omitting that, but certainly this is not something that most Americans would know this kind of distinction. . . .

"BLITZER: Well, as you know, his critics are already jumping on that statement that the president made in Buffalo saying either he forgot, either he didn't know, or either -- or perhaps he was trying to mislead the American public. I suspect there's going to be a lot more commotion over that clip from Buffalo."

Agence France Presse has more examples of Bush repeatedly arguing that the Patriot Act safeguards civil liberties because authorities still need a warrant to tap telephones in the United States.

Briefing Follies

Here's the transcript of yesterday's briefing. The highlight: A reporter's attempt to get McClellan to explain in what way Congress had oversight over the surveillance program.

" Q But as you know, members of Congress who were briefed said that they were informed -- yes, briefed, but given absolutely no recourse to formally object, to push back and say, this is not acceptable.

" MR. McCLELLAN: They're an independent branch of government. . . .

" Q Were they given oversight?

" MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, they have oversight roles to play.

" Q So they have oversight. So, in what way could they have acted on that oversight?

" MR. McCLELLAN: You should ask members of Congress that question."

Powell on the Cabal

The BBC reports on former Secretary of State Colin Powell's interview with Sir David Frost. Here's the video .

Frost asked Powell if he agrees with his former chief of staff Lawrence Wilkerson's conclusion that a secret cabal led by Cheney and Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld was running the White House. (See my October 20 column .)

Powell's response: "I wouldn't characterize it the way Larry has, calling it a cabal. There were people in this administration with strong views on every issue that came before us.. . . .

"And Secretary Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney and I occasionally would have strong differing views on matters. And when that was the case we argued them out, we fought them out, in bureaucratic ways.

"Now what Larry is suggesting in his comments is that very often maybe Mr Rumsfeld and Vice-President Cheney would take decisions into the president that the rest of us weren't aware of. That did happen, on a number of occasions."

How Cheney Flies

Nedra Pickler writes for the Associated Press with more tidbits from Cheney's recent trip. I mentioned on Monday that for the flight into Baghdad, the Air Force loaded an Airstream trailer into the belly of a C-17 cargo plane for Cheney and his top aides.

Pickler has more on that and on how during the flight home last night on his traditional 757, most of the electric outlets went on the fritz.

"Working passengers began lining up their laptops to share the power from a couple of working outlets - particularly the reporters who urgently needed to prepare their articles to transmit during a quick refueling stop in England.

"But when Cheney said his iPod needed to be recharged, it took precedence above all else and dominated one precious outlet for several hours. The vice president's press staff intervened so a reporter could use the outlet for 15 minutes to charge a dead laptop, but then the digital music device was plugged back in."

Bush's Advice to Sharon

Reuters reports: "U.S. President George W. Bush advised Israel's hefty Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Tuesday to watch what he eats and get more exercise after wishing him speedy recovery from a mild stroke, Sharon's office said.

" 'I need you to be healthy,' Bush told Sharon in a telephone call after the 77-year-old Israeli leader was released from two days in hospital, Sharon's office said in a statement that translated Bush's remarks into Hebrew.

" 'Watch what you eat, and start getting some exercise and cutting down on the number of work hours,' Bush urged the ex-general, known for his considerable girth and long days on the job. Bush is known for getting early nights.

"Bush said he had grown weary just listening to Sharon once recount the amount of work he did in a day, and that he hoped to see results of a weight loss program when the two leaders next meet -- possibly in February."

© 2005 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive