|Impeachment joke's on Bush|
David Nason, New York correspondent
December 22, 2005
WHEN failed presidential candidate John Kerry quipped in a Washington bar last week that impeaching George W. Bush might be an option if the Democrats regained control of Congress at next year's mid-term elections, he was speaking in jest.
But that was before The New York Times revealed how the President had secretly authorised the National Security Agency to spy electronically on possibly thousands of US citizens without the court-sanctioned warrants needed to make such surveillance legal.
Now, with a furious debate raging over the extent of executive authority in the US and White House efforts to defuse the scandal becoming more and more desperate, the I-word is beginning to gain wider currency. Suddenly Senator Kerry's little joke is a joke no more.
On Tuesday, just as it emerged that Mr Bush had called Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger and executive editor Bill Keller to a meeting at the Oval Office on December 6 and tried to persuade them not to run their story, Vice-President Dick Cheney took his turn at the White House barricade, telling reporters that executive power in the US had been eroded to the nation's detriment in the Watergate and Vietnam eras.
"I believe in a strong, robust executive authority and I think that the world we live in demands it," Mr Cheney said. "I would argue that the actions we've taken are totally appropriate and consistent with the constitutional authority of the President." He said it was "not an accident" the US had been spared a domestic terrorist attack for the past four years.
Mr Bush has admitted to authorising the eavesdropping program, saying he did it to protect the American people from terrorists determined to destroy the US.
But key Democrats and a growing number of Republicans dispute the White House argument that the combined authority of the US constitution and anti-terror laws passed by Congress in the week after 9/11 gave Mr Bush a legal right to undertake electronic surveillance of US citizens, foreign residents or tourists without recourse to the warrants required under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
Among those unconvinced is California Democrat Barbara Boxer, who has written to four presidential scholars asking for their opinions on whether Mr Bush has committed an impeachable offence.
Senator Boxer said she was spurred to action after John Dean, the disgraced White House counsel of the Watergate era, commented on a panel discussion that Mr Bush was the first president to actually admit to an impeachable offence.
"I take very seriously Mr Dean's comments, as I view him to be an expert on presidential abuse of power," Senator Boxer said in a statement on her website.
Attention has also been called to a Patriot Act speech by Mr Bush in April last year - two years after he gave the NSA the authority to wiretap without FISA approval - where he said: "Any time you hear the US Government talking about wiretap, a wiretap requires a court order. Nothing has changed. When we're talking about chasing down terrorists, we're talking about getting a court order before we do so."
The White House says Mr Bush's comments referred to the roving wiretaps allowed for law enforcement under the Patriot Act, not wiretaps for foreign intelligence.
But the No2 ranking Democrat in the Senate, Richard Durbin, said the President had no authority to approve such surveillance.
The White House claim that senior Democrats had endorsed the surveillance program in several classified briefings was also dealt a blow when Jay Rockefeller, the Senate Intelligence Committee's top Democrat, released a copy of a letter he sent to Mr Cheney in July 2003.
Senator Rockefeller told Mr Cheney the secrecy imposed on those who had been briefed meant he was unable to take advice on the matters raised, "much less endorse" them.