WASHINGTON, D.C. — Even as President Bush accuses the Democrats of imperiling national security by revealing his secret spying program both he and Vice President Cheney move closer to a serious confrontation with Congress over constitutional power. For the first time since their election in 2000, both face open rebuke in Congress. Impeachment may not be as far-fetched as it might at first seem.
Georgia Democratic congressman John Lewis said Bush should be impeached if he broke the law in authorizing spying on Americans. “It’s a very serious charge, but he violated the law,” said Lewis. “The president should abide by the law. He deliberately, systematically violated the law. He is not king, he is president.”
Cheney already is likely to face serious questioning and possible indictment for his role in the Plame leak case. He appears to have been the official who ordered his top aide, Scooter Libby, and possibly others to initiate the plot. Speculation is that the vice president may have to retire from office, perhaps citing health problems.
Tuesday, in a stopover in Pakistan, Cheney argued Bush administration was seeking broader executive powers in an era following Vietnam and Watergate — a period he described as “the nadir of the modern presidency in terms of authority and legitimacy.”
(Of course Cheney and other conservatives now in power long have argued for a return of all federal power to the states, and have vigorously opposed measures aimed at extending the reach of the presidency and federal government. So, his arguments now seem a bit bizarre.)
John E. Sununu, the Republican senator, from New Hampshire told the Washington Post, “The vice president may be the only person I know of that believes the executive has somehow lost power over the last 30 years.”
Bush is faced with an open split in Republican ranks in Congress, with Arlen Specter, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, calling for a joint investigation of Congress into the spy program. Both Nebraska’s Chuck Hagel and Maine’s Olympia Snowe are openly critical of the Bush plans.
Meanwhile James Robertson, a federal district judge sitting on the secret FISA court, resigned from that position. He gave no reason, but associates were quoted in the Washington Post this morning as saying he felt the spy program information might have been used to obtain FISA warrants. Colleen Kolla-Kotelly, the federal judge who chairs the panel expressed similar misgivings in 2004. “They just don’t know if the product of wiretaps were used for FISA warrants — to kind of cleanse the information,” one source told the paper. “What I’ve heard some of the judges say is they feel they’ve participated in a Potemkin court.”
Without saying so flat-out, West Virginia’s senior Democratic senator, Robert Byrd, this week set forth the case for impeachment:
“The President claims that these powers are within his role as Commander in Chief,” Byrd said in a December 19 statement. “Make no mistake, the powers granted to the Commander in Chief are specifically those as head of the Armed Forces. These warrantless searches are conducted not against a foreign power, but against unsuspecting and unknowing American citizens. They are conducted against individuals living on American soil, not in Iraq or Afghanistan. There is nothing within the powers granted in the Commander in Chief clause that grants the President the ability to conduct clandestine surveillance of American civilians. We must not allow such groundless, foolish claims to stand.
“The President claims a boundless authority through the resolution that authorized the war on those who perpetrated the September 11th attacks. But that resolution does not give the President unchecked power to spy on our own people. That resolution does not give the Administration the power to create covert prisons for secret prisoners. That resolution does not authorize the torture of prisoners to extract information from them. That resolution does not authorize running black-hole secret prisons in foreign countries to get around U.S. law. That resolution does not give the President the powers reserved only for kings and potentates.”