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2006-03-14

In Historic Move, Feingold Introduces Resolution to Censure President Bush

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On Monday, Democratic Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin introduced a resolution to censure President Bush for authorizing the no-warrant domestic surveillance program. Feingold accused Bush of breaking the law and misleading Congress about it. We play Feingold introducing the resolution as well as reaction from Republican and Democratic senators on the Senate floor. [includes rush transcript]

On Monday, Democratic Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin introduced a resolution to censure President Bush for authorizing the no-warrant domestic surveillance program. Feingold accused Bush of breaking the law and misleading Congress about it.

As Feingold spoke, Democratic leaders held off the immediate vote that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist requested.

The Bush administration has argued Congress granted President Bush the power to order U.S. intelligence agencies to conduct domestic surveillance with the resolution authorizing military action after 9/11. The Bush administration also says the president has the authority as commander in chief of the military.

Before Feingold took to the floor Monday, Majority leader Bill Frist spoke.

  • Sen. Bill Frist (R–TN), Majority leader.

Soon after, Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold introduced his resolution to censure President Bush:

  • Sen. Russ Feingold (D–WI), introducing resolution to censure President Bush.

After Feingold introduced his resolution to censure President Bush, he immediately left the chambers. Republican Senator Arlen Specter blasted Feingold for leaving and called the resolution to censure "excessive," explaining that "the President may be wrong, but he has not acted in bad faith."

Following Specter’s complaint that he had wanted to debate Feingold, Democratic Senator Dick Durbin from Illinois took to the floor to fill in for Feingold and debate Specter.

  • Sen. Dick Durbin (D–IL) and Sen. Arlen Specter (R–PA)

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Before Feingold took the floor Monday, Majority Leader Bill Frist spoke.

SEN. BILL FRIST: Just to clarify, he has said his intentions representing the other side of the aisle is to offer a resolution to censure the President of the United States of America for a program, which I have said, and I will restate, is a lawful program. It is a program that is constitutional and is a program that is vital to the safety and security of the American people.

AMY GOODMAN: Majority Leader Bill Frist addressing the Senate Monday. Soon after, Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold introduced his resolution to censure President Bush.

SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD: When the President of the United States breaks the law, he must be held accountable. That is why today I’m introducing a resolution to censure President George W. Bush. The President authorized an illegal program to spy on American citizens on American soil, and then misled the Congress and the public about the existence and the legality of that program. It is up to this body to reaffirm the rule of law by condemning the President’s actions. All of us in this body took an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States and bear true allegiance to the same. Fulfilling that oath requires us to speak clearly and forcefully when the President violates the law. This resolution allows us to send a clear message that the President’s conduct was wrong, and we must do that.

The President’s actions demand a formal judgment from Congress. At moments in our history like this, we are reminded why the founders balanced the powers of the different branches of government so carefully in the Constitution. At the very heart of our system of government lies the recognition that some leaders will do wrong and that others in the government will then bear the responsibility to do right. This president has done wrong. This body can do right, by condemning his conduct and showing the people of this nation that his actions will not be allowed to stand unchallenged.

To date, members of Congress have responded in very different ways to the President’s conduct. Some are responding by defending his conduct, ceding him the power he claims and even seeking to grant him expanded statutory authorization powers to make his conduct legal. While we know he is breaking the law, we do not know all the details of what the President has authorized or whether there is any need to change the law to allow it, yet some, some want give him carte blanche to continue his illegal conduct.

To approve the President’s actions now, without demanding a full inquiry into this program, a detailed explanation for why the President authorized it, and accountability for his illegal actions, would be irresponsible. It would be to abandon the duty of the legislative branch under our constitutional system of separation of power, while the President recklessly grabs for power and ignores the rule of law.

Others have taken important steps to check the President. Senator Specter has held hearings on the wiretapping program in the Judiciary Committee. He has even suggested that Congress may need to use the power of the purse in order to get some answers out of the administration. And Senator Byrd has proposed that Congress establish an independent commission to investigate this program.

As we move forward, Congress will need to consider a range of possible actions including investigations, independent commissions, legislation, or even impeachment. But at a minimum, Congress should censure a president who has so plainly broken the law. Mr. President, our founders anticipated that these kinds of abuses would occur. Federalist number 51 speaks of the Constitution system of checks and balances. It says, "It may be a reflection on human nature that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections of human nature. If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to control the governed, and in the next place, oblige it to control itself."

Mr. President, we are faced with an executive branch that places itself above the law. The founders understood that the branches must check each other to control abuses of government power. The President’s actions are such an abuse. His actions must be checked, and he should be censured. This president exploited the climate of anxiety after September 11, 2001, both to push for overly intrusive powers in the PATRIOT Act and to take us into a war in Iraq that has been a tragic diversion from the critical fight against al-Qaeda and its affiliates. In both of these instances, however, Congress gave its approval to the President’s actions, however mistaken the approval may have been.

Here’s the difference, Mr. President. This was not the case with the illegal domestic wiretapping program authorized by the President shortly after September 11. The President violated the law, ignored the Constitution and the other two branches of government, and disregarded the rights and freedoms upon which our country was founded. No one questions, Mr. President, no one questions whether the government should wiretap suspected terrorists. Of course, we should, and we can under current law. If there were a demonstrated need to change the law, of course, Congress should consider that step, but instead — instead — the President is refusing to follow the law while offering the flimsiest of arguments to justify his misconduct. Mr. President, he must be held accountable for his actions.

Now, the facts are pretty straightforward. Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, known as FISA, nearly 30 years ago to ensure that as we wiretap suspected terrorists and spies, we also protect innocent Americans from unjustified government intrusion. Mr. President, FISA makes it a crime — a crime — to wiretap Americans on U.S. soil without the requisite warrants, and the President has ordered warrantless wiretaps of Americans on U.S. soil, so it’s pretty simple. The President has broken that law, and that alone is unacceptable.

But the President did much more than that. Not only did the President break the law, he also actively misled Congress and the American people about his actions. And then, when the program was made public about the legality of the N.S.A. program, he has fundamentally violated the trust of the American people. The President’s own words showed just how seriously he has violated that trust. We now know that the N.S.A. wiretapping program began not long after September 11. Before the existence of this program was revealed, the President went out of his way — he went out of his way, Mr. President — in several speeches to assure the public that the government was getting court orders to wiretap Americans in the United States, something he now admits was not the case.

On April 20, 2004, for example, when the President told an audience in Buffalo that, quote, "Any time you hear the United States government talking about wiretaps, it requires a wiretap, requires a court order. Nothing has changed by the way," unquote. In fact, a lot had changed. But the President wasn’t upfront with the American people. Just months later on July 14, 2004, in my own state of Wisconsin, the President said that, quote, "Any action that takes place by law enforcement requires a court order. In other words, the government can’t move on wiretaps or roving wiretaps without getting a court order," unquote. And then, Mr. President, last summer, on June 9, 2005, the President spoke in Columbus, Ohio, and again insisted that his administration was abiding by the laws governing wiretaps: quote, "Law enforcement officers need a federal judge’s permission to wiretap a foreign terrorist’s phone, a federal judge’s permission to track his calls, or a federal judge’s permission to search his property. Officers must meet strict standards to use any of these tools, and these standards are fully consistent with the Constitution of the United States," unquote.

Now, Mr. President, in all of these cases, the President knew that he wasn’t telling the complete story. But engaged in tough political battle during the presidential campaign and later over the PATRIOT Act reauthorization, he wanted to convince the public that a system of checks and balances was in place to protect the innocent people from government snooping. He knew when he gave those reassurances that he had authorized the N.S.A. to bypass the very system of checks and balances that he was using as a shield against criticism of the PATRIOT Act and his administration’s performance. Mr. President, this conduct is unacceptable. The President has a duty to play it straight with the American people. But for political purposes, he just ignored that duty.

AMY GOODMAN: Democratic Senator Russell Feingold introducing a resolution of censure of President Bush.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Back to the Senate floor. After Senator Feingold introduced his resolution to censure President Bush he immediately left the chambers. Republican Senator Arlen Specter blasted Feingold for leaving and called the resolution to censure excessive, explaining that, quote, "The President may be wrong, but he has not acted in bad faith." Following Specter’s complaint that he wanted to debate Feingold, Democratic Senator Dick Durbin from Illinois took to the floor to fill in for Feingold and debate Specter.

SEN. DICK DURBIN: After listening to Attorney General Gonzales’s testimony before our committee, it appears that the thrust of the constitutional argument justifying the wiretap goes back to a vote that we share, a vote we both cast in favor of authorizing the use of military force on September 18, 2001. I would like to ask the senator from Pennsylvania if he believed that in casting his vote for that resolution authorizing force to pursue those responsible for 9/11, that he was giving the President authority to wiretap American citizens without obtaining a court order required by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: No.

SEN. DICK DURBIN: The next question I would like to ask the senator from Pennsylvania, and I appreciate his forthright response. The Majority Leader, Senator Frist came to the floor a few moments ago and said he believed the wiretap program of President Bush was both constitutional and legal. Does the senator from Pennsylvania agree with that conclusion?

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: I neither agree nor disagree. I don’t know. And as I said more extensively in the body of my comments, I don’t have any basis for knowing, because I don’t know what the program does. And I think that it may be that a program could be structured going after only al-Qaeda conversations, and I would like to see some proof on that, quite frankly, that they have reasonable grounds to think that one party or the other is al-Qaeda. That’s in the body of Senator Feingold’s "whereas" clauses, and it may be that they have been able to take a limited amount of information and destroy the rest, and that it has produced very important results, and that there has been a minimal incursion. I don’t know the answers to those questions. But I certainly think that you oughtn’t castigate the President as a criminal until you do know the answers to those questions.

AMY GOODMAN: Republican Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, speaking in the Senate chambers after Wisonsin Senator Russ Feingold introduced a proposal to censure President Bush. He was speaking with Illinois Senator Dick Durbin.

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