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Worse Than Watergate: Former Nixon Counsel John Dean Says Bush Should Be Impeached

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Richard Nixon’s former counsel John Dean joins us in our firehouse studios to discuss his new book “Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush” in which he charges that the crimes of President Bush are worse than his previous boss and are grounds for impeachment. Dean served prison time for his role in the Watergate scandal in the early 70s. [includes rush transcript]

On June 17, 1972, five men employed by the Committee to Re-elect the President (later known as CREEP) were arrested while breaking into the Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate Hotel. They went in to plant listening devices in the phone and steal campaign strategy documents.

The White House attempted to cover-up the burglary. Among those found guilty was Richard Nixon’s chief counsel John W. Dean.

Dean began his political life at the age of 29 as the Republican counsel on the House Judiciary Committee before being recruited by Richard Nixon when he was just 31. He served as Nixon’s White House lawyer for the last 1,000 days.

G. Gordon Liddy, the former FBI agent who masterminded the Watergate burglary on behalf of Nixon, once said that he would like to kill John Dean by shoving a pencil through his neck.

Why? Because Dean is the one who dared tell Nixon in 1973 that the web of lies surrounding the Watergate scandal had formed “a cancer on the presidency.” When Dean went public about that conversation, the Nixon White House smeared him as a liar. Fortunately, the conversation had been taped, and Dean was vindicated.

Dean agreed to testify to Congress that Nixon was guilty of covering up Watergate, even though he was certain to condemn himself to prison. Dean was later charged with obstruction of justice and would eventually serve 127 days for taking part in the cover-up.

Dean is charging in a new book out this week Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush that the crimes of President Bush are worse than his previous boss and are grounds for impeachment.

He joins us in our studios today. Before we speak with him, we hear an excerpt of Senator Ted Kennedy speaking at the Brookings Institution yesterday afternoon.

  • John Dean, author of the new book Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush. He served as counsel to President Nixon.
    Read John Dean’s columns

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

AMY GOODMAN: John Dean joins us in our studio today. But before we go to him, let’s hear what Senator Ted Kennedy said yesterday about the Bush administration and the invasion of Iraq. Kennedy spoke at the Brookings Institution yesterday afternoon.

TED KENNEDY: Sadly, this administration has failed to live up to basic standards of open and candid debate. On issue after issue, they tell the American people one thing, and do another. They repeatedly invent facts to support their preconceived agenda. Facts which administration officials knew, or should have known, were not true. This pattern has prevailed since President Bush’s earliest days in office. As a result, this President has now created the largest credibility gap since Richard Nixon. He Has broken the basic bond of trust with the American people. In recent months it, has become increasingly clear that the Bush administration misled the American people about the threat to the nation posed by the Iraqi regime. A year after the war began, Americans are questioning why the administration went to war in Iraq when Iraq was not an imminent threat, when it had no weapons, no persuasive links to Al Qaeda, and no connection to the terrorist attacks on September 11 and no stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons. Tragically, in making the decision to go to war, the Bush administration allowed its own stubborn ideology to trump the cold, hard evidence that Iraq posed no immediate threat. They misled Congress and the American people because the administration knew that it could not obtain the consent of Congress for the war, if all of the facts were known. By going to war in Iraq on false pretenses and neglecting the real war on terrorism, President Bush gave Al Qaeda two years, two whole years, to regroup and recover in the border regions of Afghanistan. As the terrorist bombings and other reports now indicate, Al Qaeda has used that time to plant terrorist cells in countries throughout the world, and establish ties with terrorist groups in many different lands. By going to war in Iraq, we have strained our ties with long-standing allies around the world. Allies whose help we clearly and urgently need on intelligence, on law enforcement, and militarily. We have made America more hated in the world, and made the war on terrorism harder to win. The result is a massive and very dangerous crisis in our foreign policy. We have lost the respect of other nations in the world. Where do we go to get back our respect? How do we re-establish the working relationships we need with other countries to win the war on terrorism and advance the ideals we share? And how can we possibly expect President Bush to do that? He’s the problem, not the solution. Iraq is George Bush’s Vietnam, and this country needs a new President.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator Ted Kennedy yesterday addressing the Brookings Institution. “Iraq is George Bush’s Vietnam.” John Dean, do you agree?

JOHN DEAN: It certainly is a problem for him. It is certainly part of a pattern of secrecy. It’s part of a pattern of misleading the American people. I think the Senator really encapsulated a very serious problem in a very few words in that clip you had.

AMY GOODMAN: Your book is called, “Worse Than Watergate.” Why?

JOHN DEAN: Well, actually, the title, as I explain in the preface of the book, had multiple purposes. It is declarative. Is subjective in a sense, it is also interrogative. The title actually came from a column that I had published in my regular column, and then it was republished by “Salon,” magazine and they put the title, “Worse Than Watergate” on it. My editor happened to see that, and about the same time that happened, Chris Matthews on “Hardball” had Ed Gillespie of the Republican National Committee on, and it was about the time that Valerie Plame(?), her true identity as a C.I.A. covert agent was released. Chris said to Gillespie, “That underlying conduct is worse than Watergate, isn’t it?” And the Chairman of the Republican National Committee agreed it was. These things sort-of came together about the same time we were titling this book. The editor suggested this title and I said it really works in many ways, more ways than I ever anticipated. There are, as I outline in the book, something like 11 inchoate scandals that are available right now to really become a serious part of this administration. The worst problem, though, is the problem that Senator Kennedy just addressed. Nobody died during Watergate. None of the Watergate — so-called Watergate “abuses of power” resulted in the loss of a life. And we’re in a situation now where the abuse of power has cost a lot of lives.

AMY GOODMAN: We interviewed you when you were talking about the impeachable crimes of George Bush, if in fact he lied. Are you convinced he did now?

JOHN DEAN: I am convinced he did lie, and in fact I put an appendix in the book to really show others how they can establish that for themselves. What I did is I looked at one of his major speeches. And took the statements that he had made relying on rather publicly available material. It’s not highly classified. There are reports that anyone who takes the trouble to look online can find. And you can see where he literally takes a statement and drops all of the qualifications, all of the modifiers and makes it a declarative statement. He does it time after time after time. This is a misrepresentation of the facts. When he went to Congress in October of 2002 to get a resolution to go to war in Iraq, he wanted something that the Congress had never given before, which was a delegation of a power that he wouldn’t have to go back to Congress to get war powers when he actually went to war. The Congress had never granted such a power. So, the Congress said, all right. We’ll take the two — we’ll do this with conditions. The two conditions are — really the premise that he had been arguing for war. So, when they granted the resolution, they said, we want a formal Presidential declaration from you that, one, there is no diplomatic way to resolve the problems of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. That was the first condition. The second condition was that going to war in Iraq would be consistent with the war on terrorism, which was his second point, that there was an Al Qaeda connection with Saddam Hussein, was the implicit rationale. Bush, in a secret deal with the House of Representatives, agreed to that. The resolution was written, passed and signed by the President. No one really paid any attention to this resolution, and the President in March of 2003 goes to war. 48 hours after, under the resolution, he had to report that he had done that, and he had to submit his formal declaration. His declaration is one of the most — I can’t really find the right word for it, Amy. It’s just — I use all of the modifiers I can think of in the book. It’s a fraud. It is a deliberate, misleading resolution the President himself asked for. It’s a violation of trust to the Congress who granted him very unusual powers. It’s a violation of the trust of the American people. His declaration is phony. His determination, excuse me, is phony. It’s actually bizarre. So I lay that out in the book to explain to people what he has done and how he did it, and how questionable it really is.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about the Bush-Cheney obsession with secrecy, something you knew very well, and were a part of, in the Nixon White House. Can you specifically address what you’re seeing right now?

JOHN DEAN: I saw the secrecy — as you know, I write a biweekly column, and I started noticing it fairly early in the administration and started writing about it. This is not a book I had planned to write, but I watched it, and it got worse. It started very early. It actually started during the campaign with a lot of stonewalling that morphed into more stonewalling once they got to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Typical examples would be, for example, Cheney’s health. Before he was named as Vice President and while he’s the Vice President-elect, he has another heart attack. We all knew he had a bad heart record, and they promised to put out his health records. Not a word that is really meaningful has ever been put out on Cheney’s health records. We don’t have a clue how sick this man really is. In my own research, I found out that, for example, if you have a quadruple bypass, like Cheney had, has about a 20-year reliable lifetime. That 20 years for Mr. Cheney comes up right in the middle of this campaign. I think it’s the sort of information that ought to be public. I happened to notice that John Kerry put out his cholesterol levels and triglycerides recently, and we have not been able to get this out of Cheney in four years. Anyway, That’s just one of many. When they get in The White House one of the things that really got my attention was — in 1978, the Congress passed a law making Presidential papers available. They’re saying these are, really belong to the American people. George Bush refused to release the papers of his father’s Vice Presidency, he kept asking for 60-day delays. Finally, he issued an executive order which literally guts the 1978 law. It’s in court now. You cannot gut an act of Congress with an executive order. But still, it’s in a limbo.

AMY GOODMAN: Why do you think he wants to do this?

JOHN DEAN: I think it’s evident. He wants to keep these papers hidden. Bill Clinton, for example — there has been since Watergate, Amy, a steady trend of open government. It really had changed significantly after Watergate. Bill Clinton, for example, declassified almost a billion documents. This administration has really put — as much as a halt as they possibly can on this area, and using — it started long before 9-11. It started long before there could be any national security justification. Rather, they used that and exploited that as an excuse for more secrecy.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to former White House Council to Richard Nixon, John Dean. He has written a new book called, “Worse Than Watergate, The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush”. We’ll be right back with him in a minute.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, the exception to the rulers. I’m Amy Goodman. As we continue our conversation with former White House counsel, John Dean, who has written a book called, “Worse Than Watergate,” something that brought him down as well. He served 127 days in prison for obstruction of justice.

JOHN DEAN: Technically, let me correct you. I really never did go to prison. I was 127 days in the custody of the U.S. Marshalls because I was in the Witness Protection Program. The government was very concerned about keeping me alive. I really have not let that get corrected over the years. It’s out there on the web. It’s on different sites.

AMY GOODMAN: Weren’t you in prison?

JOHN DEAN: I was not in prison.

AMY GOODMAN: Weren’t you in jail?

JOHN DEAN: I was not in jail.

AMY GOODMAN: In detention?

JOHN DEAN: I was in custody and would stay in a safe house at night. I spent most of that time in the U.S. — excuse me, in the Watergate Special Prosecutor’s office. I was driven to the office every day from the safe house. I was actually during the time that the trials were going on, I was in the courthouse in the prosecutor’s office.

AMY GOODMAN: Wasn’t it a sentence?

JOHN DEAN: It was part of a sentence — well, yes. It became the sentence, the judge after — had sentenced me just before the trial started, and after 127 days later, said time served.

AMY GOODMAN: And that time you had served in the prosecutor’s office?

JOHN DEAN: More or less.

AMY GOODMAN: You never served a night in any kind of detention facility?

JOHN DEAN: Well in a safe house, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: With other people?

JOHN DEAN: There were other government witnesses in that facility, yes. My next door neighbor happened to be former mafia hit man who once told me, you know, John, I always liked Richard Nixon until I realized he wasn’t a very good criminal.

AMY GOODMAN: Is that place still a house of detention?

JOHN DEAN: I don’t know. They don’t — they don’t advertise it. It’s part of the witness protection program. Well — Anyway, a technical point that I just thought I would clear up.

AMY GOODMAN: In the book, you talk about Karl Rove, and —


AMY GOODMAN: Talk about South Carolina. You talk about John McCain, and you talk about Karl Rove’s role in the White House. You say he’s not Bush’s brain.

JOHN DEAN: Well, that, and I also mention in the book the first time I ever heard the name Karl Rove was from the Watergate Prosecutor’s Office when they were asking me questions. At the time I didn’t recognize the name. It’s one of those things that just sort of stuck in my memory. I have strange eclectic memories. When I was working on — actually, when I was working on a column, I decided to look in the prosecutor’s files to see if there was anything more there. I did an F.O.I., a Freedom of Information Act request, found a fair amount of material there, but I also found stuff that was not picked up by the Freedom Information Act because people didn’t know where to look and I did. I found that other people were questioned about Rove and his activity, and it was being done by one of the assistant special prosecutors who was looking at campaign dirty tricks. I can only tell you what I think happened is that they had such larger fish to fry that Mr. Rove went right through the net.

AMY GOODMAN: This was when?

JOHN DEAN: This was in 1973 and 1974.

AMY GOODMAN: And what was he doing then?

JOHN DEAN: He was a — I gather he was some sort of campaign consultant. He worked and had an affiliation with a Republican National Committee. George Bush Senior sort of brought him into the family business, and took him off to Texas.

AMY GOODMAN: And then through the years what he has been involved with?

JOHN DEAN: Well, he has — I don’t have a lot of direct knowledge. In writing this book, I had a very interesting problem. I have some very good sources who didn’t want to talk to me on the record. I had to promise to talk to them on the deepest of backgrounds. Some of the situations I have learned have become public like Paul O’Neill stating some of the things that I knew. I knew how Bush often went to meetings on a script, and I couldn’t really say that, because I would have revealed one of my sources.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what you mean?

JOHN DEAN: For example, at a Cabinet meeting, the Secretary would be told before he came to the cabinet meeting what he was expected to say: the subjects that were going to be addressed. They would go around the table in this charade after meeting that really wasn’t anything other than a scripted gathering of the Cabinet. It’s really extraordinary. Bush would have a few asides, but nothing really of substance to add to these things. As I said, I had picked this up earlier than — from one of my sources who said, you cannot repeat that, because this is not a well known fact. Of course, when the Suskind book came out and reported that O’Neill said it, I could at least footnote it into my book. I had the same problem to a degree with Karl Rove. Somebody who has dealt extensively with Rove in the White House and who was also connected with the Nixon White House really gave me the best shorthand description of Rove. They said he’s both Haldeman and Ehrlichman. To the world that doesn’t know Watergate, that didn’t mean anything. Anybody that knows Watergate knows they were two of the heaviest players in the White House. Haldeman, the Chief of Staff, the procedure man, where would the president be, protecting his image, the political planning and fairly ruthless, would get one of the heaviest sentences of anybody involved in Watergate. Ehrlichman was a policy man, but every policy he worked up for the President was viewed through the perspective of how will this help get Richard Nixon re-elected, because the entire first term was spent doing that. This is what Rove has done for this president. These are the sort of basic facts where I have taken my own inside knowledge of the Nixon White House and had good sources regarding the Bush White House and found public information to corroborate it, and connected the dots like some sort of C.I.A. analyst to be able to tell people what’s really going on here.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about the comparisons of the Nixon White House, and the Bush White House to do with secrecy, obsession with secrecy and getting re-elected at all times?

JOHN DEAN: Yes. Absolutely. Nixon is first of our modern presidents who really initiates the permanent campaign. In other words, as soon as he arrives in office, he brings with him his own P.R. people, his media people, and the whole focus is getting the second term. Then the second term would have its own set of goals. We have the same thing with the Bush administration. To a deal, you have had a far lesser degree with other presidents. But for example, George Bush Senior refused to do that, and told his advisers, he said, you know, I don’t want any of this. In fact, he called polls yesterday’s news, so he didn’t even want to be bothered by those. But showing the difference between the father and the son. But this administration is keyed like Nixon, and has been — I get a kick out of hearing that George Bush — the incumbent, is about to go out and start his re-election campaign. Well, I can’t find any line between the campaign in 2000 and the campaign in 2004. It has been a continuous campaign.

AMY GOODMAN: The 9-11 Commission hearings, Condoleezza Rice will now actually testify under oath, always surprising to hear. She was willing to testify, but not under oath. It was quite something to see Karen Hughes. Now she’s on a book tour, so she’s speaking to the press. She is saying that the reason — the only reason she could see that perhaps the White House would not want to have the 9-11 Commission report released or would want to hold on to some of the information, documents, is they wouldn’t want it expose a C.I.A. operative or people behind the scenes. But — yet you have the situation with Valerie Plame. The White House operated — called not at all for an investigation when she was exposed, when her husband came forward and criticized Bush.

JOHN DEAN: Well, this administration has redefined hypocrisy and certainly has double standards. The — it would be a travesty if the work of this commission when it is sent over to the White House for vetoing and the National Security Council was any way held up after it’s finally released. For example, Richard Clark’s book. One of the reasons it’s out right now is that the White House vetoing process sat on that book as a former member of the N.S.C. he signed a contract when he went to work there, that he would indeed do that, if he were to release any information. They had to get it vetoed. They had it for quite a while. They knew what he was going to say long before he said it. They held it up as late as he could. That being one of the reason it’s collided now with the 9-11 hearings and ushered itself right into the campaign. And I say it will be a travesty if they try to do the same thing. But it won’t surprise me. One of the reasons we have the 9-11 commission, you recall is that at John McCain said, they stonewalled and slow-walked the joint inquiry. You see the fine hand of Dick Cheney in the fact that it was a joint inquiry, which is about the least efficient way for the congress to investigate anything. The standing committees of the congress would have otherwise done it. You put both the House and Senate into joint committees, first you have the inner house competition between the two chambers, secondly, you have a — a body that is so large that it’s ineffective. The staff cannot prepare the members. The members themselves have busy schedules. They need the staff to do it, so that was very clever of Cheney, who knows how the game is played to put together the joint inquiry to keep it away from the standing committees.

AMY GOODMAN: That was the Congressional inquiry.

JOHN DEAN: That was the Congressional inquiry and the 9-11, and they got nothing accomplished because they dragged providing the information. They had done the same with the 9-11 Commission.

AMY GOODMAN: Bush said 28 pages of documenting could not be revealed which reminded me of Nixon’s 1-minute gap.

JOHN DEAN: Not a dissimilar situation. The 28 pages that were withheld have not vanished into the ethers somewhere.

AMY GOODMAN: We are talking to John Dean, author of “Worse Than Watergate, the Secret Presidency of George W. Bush.” You were talking about Dick Cheney, what is his role in this White House, and is this Vice President’s role unusual?

JOHN DEAN: It is very unusual. He’s the most powerful Vice President we have ever had. He is in essence the Co-President. I think the best evidence of that is the fact that when the two of them are going to appear in the 9-11 commission, they’re going together, in tandem. That speaks — you know, one doesn’t have to explain that terribly deeply.

AMY GOODMAN: Why don’t you? No, why don’t you explain it.

JOHN DEAN: I will, but let me come around this way to explain it. You have it with George Bush a president who is very good at working the campaign trail. He’s very good at raising money. He has been doing it all of his life. He knows how to do that. He has got a pleasant public personality. It isn’t as pleasant in private, but he is very good at putting a smile on his face and going out and glad-handing and pretending he’s a regular guy that everybody wants to be his friend and he wants to be everybody’s friend. He is — he has been the Head of State of this Presidency. the Head of Government, which is a whole different ballgame, these are things that don’t interest George Bush too terribly. He has no intellectual curiosity. He doesn’t want to get into policy matters deeply. As even one of his speechwriters David Frum said, you couldn’t give this president a quiz on his own administration and hope that he would pass it. He’s not stupid, but he’s ignorant but ignorant by design it appears. To go into the 9-11 Commission, I don’t think George Bush could get very far other than to embarrass himself seriously in front of the Commission. While Tim Russert had him one on one under camera in the Oval Office, we all saw how thin and shallow that was, that it would be far worse with a Commission asking him fairly penetrating questions that Cheney can obviously answer and Bush can’t.

AMY GOODMAN: Also something that is not talked about very much is part of the deal for having Condoleezza Rice testify publicly under oath and having Bush and Cheney together before the ten Commissioners, is that they will not be able to call up any other White House people afterwards.

JOHN DEAN: That’s — apparently, that — they are at the end of their investigation, so, it wasn’t a great sacrifice by the Commission, the 9-11 Commission to do that. I think the fact they limited themselves to two-and-a-half hours with Condoleezza Rice is a tighter and more negative deal than not calling future or White House staff. They can talk to them off the record, but they cannot put them on the record. Two-and-a-half hours is not very long. If she gives a 30-minute opening statement, you have two hours and an awful lot of commissioners who will want to ask questions. Half of them will probably be softballs. The other half will be hardballs. So it’s not very much time.

AMY GOODMAN: We only have two minutes. Can you make your case for why you believe President Bush should be impeached?

JOHN DEAN: The short answer is that he is — made a material misrepresentation to Congress in going to war in Iraq, and I drew upon the history of the founding of the nation. I look at what is said by the House Judiciary Committee during the Nixon impeachment where they very clearly said false statements to Congress are an impeachable offense. They didn’t find those with Nixon. They thought his secret bombing of Cambodia was a justification and rational to add an impeachment clause. However in the course of the debate, they learned that Nixon had secretly told the leadership of the Congress what he was doing. So, he really hadn’t withheld that from the Congress. I don’t think that Dick Cheney and George Bush have secretly told the Congress they were going to lie about the reasons they went to Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think George Bush could be impeached?

JOHN DEAN: It’s a political process. What could happen — one of the reasons that I wrote this book, Amy, is to get some of these issues up on the table that are really not being discussed during the campaign so far, the secrecy issue in particular. It’s theoretically possible if the American people knew this, they could ratify it and you wouldn’t have an impeachable offense if the American people said, all right, we’ll give him a pass on this. Technically, there is an impeachable offense. Whether he will be impeached, that’s a political process.

AMY GOODMAN: John Dean, I want to thank you very much for being with us. John Dean has written a book called, “Worse Than Watergate, the Secret Presidency of George W. Bush.” Thank you.

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