Tuesday night on MSNBC's Countdown show, Keith Olbermann's substitute host Alison Stewart featured an interview with Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer discussing the possibility of impeaching President Bush over the current NSA spying controversy. Quoting a recent statement by former Nixon White House counsel John Dean that Bush is "the first President to admit to an impeachable offense," Stewart interviewed Boxer about her inquiries into impeachment without a rebuttal from any conservative guest. Instead, Stewart followed up with an appearance by Newsweek correspondent Richard Wolffe. Citing a column by "my pal," Newsweek's Jonathan Alter, Stewart raised the charge that "the only reason that the President did not want the NSA program to become public knowledge was because it was embarrassing and it would make trouble, not because it threatens national security."
Stewart plugged the Boxer segment in the opening teaser, conveying that "most on the left are critical of Mr. Bush and what he did. And now they are doing something about it." She then opened the show: "It's the first mention of impeachment since the President acknowledged authorizing the NSA to spy on certain Americans without a warrant. Senator Barbara Boxer of California advancing the 'I' word after former Nixon White House counsel John Dean said that the President, in admitting he authorized the NSA spy program, Mr. Bush became, quote, 'the first President to admit to an impeachable offense,' end quote."
After relaying Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller's criticism of the program and White House press secretary Scott McClellan's defense of it, Stewart proceeded to play a pre-recorded interview with Boxer which gave the Democratic Senator a forum to make her case against the President (a complete transcript of the interview appears farther down), after which Stewart set up her interview with Wolffe. Stewart raised Alter's assertions about the President's motivations for lobbying the New York Times not to print the story as being about the "appearance of illegality." Stewart later asked Wolffe: "Jonathan Alter wrote in a Newsweek commentary that the only reason that the President did not want the NSA program to become public knowledge was because it was embarrassing and it would make trouble, not because it threatens national security. Does this fall into any pattern in this White House for dealing with sticky situations?"
Wolffe agreed, "Well, it sure does," and expressed his belief that "I'd agree to some extent with Jon Alter in saying that this is more of a political problem than it is about national security in the end because ... al-Qaeda and Bin Laden himself are fully aware that this government and the United States, in general, eavesdrops on communications." Wolffe concluded that "national security, it's not the problem here. It's politics and the law."
A complete transcript of relevant portions of the Tuesday December 20 Countdown show appears below. In bold are key portions discussed above:
Alison Stewart, in opening teaser: "Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow? I spy: At least the administration does. While some on the right are defending the President's position, most on the left are critical of Mr. Bush and what he did. And now they are doing something about it. Senator Barbara Boxer is asking about impeachment. And she is our guest tonight."
Stewart, opening the show: "And good evening. I'm Alison Stewart, in for Keith Olbermann. It's the first mention of impeachment since the President acknowledged authorizing the NSA to spy on certain Americans without a warrant. Senator Barbara Boxer of California advancing the 'I' word after former Nixon White House counsel John Dean said that the President, in admitting he authorized the NSA spy program, Mr. Bush became, quote, 'the first President to admit to an impeachable offense,' end quote. Our fifth story on the Countdown, Senator Boxer is now calling for a, quote, 'full airing of this matter by the Senate.' My interview with her in just a moment. This was just the latest salvo in the surveillance situation. Democratic Representative John Lewis also called for the President to be impeached of it turns out that he broke the law."
After covering Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller's criticism of the President's use of the NSA program and White House press secretary Scott McClellan's defense of it, Stewart continued.
Stewart: "The administration standing by its position that the program is perfectly legal. As I mentioned earlier, John Dean disagrees. And now Senator Barbara Boxer has written to four presidential scholars for their opinion on this impeachment issue. I spoke with her earlier this evening."
Stewart, in pre-recorded segment: "And Senator Barbara Boxer, thank you so much for joining us."
Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA): "Nice to be with you."
Stewart: "Now, what specifically did you ask these presidential scholars to consider, and have you heard back from any of them?"
Boxer: "I sent the presidential scholars a quote from John Dean, who was the White House counsel during Watergate and, in my belief, is probably the ultimate expert on what an abuse of power by a President means. And he said very clearly at a forum that I was with him on Sunday, he said at this forum, that he said that President Bush was the first President he knew to admit to an impeachable offense. I was taken aback. I mean, I knew this was serious, spying on our own citizens without a warrant, but, you know, I was amazed to hear him say that. I asked if I could quote him. He said absolutely. He has since confirmed it. And I have asked these scholars to get back to me. But in the meantime, there's lots of other things that we need to do, which is to hold hearings on this. I think it's very important. It's, to me, more important than the Supreme Court justice hearing. That can wait. Sandra Day O'Connor is willing to sit on the bench as long as it takes. This is a question of the rights, liberties and freedoms of the American people being abused, and clearly so."
Stewart: "Now, aside from raising the specter of impeachment and getting some news coverage with this letter, what is it you really want to accomplish here?"
Boxer: "Well, I did not raise the specter of impeachment. John Dean did. And I think anyone who is alive and with a pulse knows that when Richard Nixon's former White House counsel says this is an impeachable offense, you ought to get some information. If I were to not to do that, I don't think I deserve to be in the U.S. Senate. So what I'm hoping to do is to definitely let people know that this is very serious. Plus we have added to this the fact that the President in April of '04, two years after this program started, went out of his way to tell the American people in a speech, 'Don't worry, we always get a warrant from a judge to check us.' We also have a situation where the Vice President said he never heard a word of dissent from any member of Congress. Today, we saw a handwritten letter written by Senator Jay Rockefeller, who was the Democratic ranking member on intelligence, the actual vice chair of the committee, saying he was very, very concerned about this program. And lastly, you have the President saying, 'Look, we can't sit around and wait for a court. There are emergencies.' Well, I read the law today. And under the FISA law which controls this, there's a separate section that Joe Biden wrote, he wrote the whole law, that says in emergency you can go ahead and spy on an American citizen. It just, you need 72 hours to go back and get the approval from a judge. So there's many troubling things about this."
Stewart later asked: "Now, Senator, why wouldn't this fall under what the administration is saying, 'the use of necessary force,' that the Constitution allows the government to listen in on telephone calls during wartime?"
Boxer: "Yes, it does, and they have to go back and get the agreement of a FISA court. And here's the thing: They just don't want to be bothered because I think they think no one is wiser than they. They don't want to have any check on what they do. They are, at this point, unchecked. And this is not what our founders, you know, wanted for this country. They wanted to have a government of, by, and for the people, and to protect all of us from overreaching. If Barbara Boxer overreaches, the President has a veto. If President Bush overreaches, there's a FISA court. That's what's built into our Constitution, and it's been revered by all of us, and to see it being disregarded is outrageous, especially since the excuses they're giving just don't hold up."
Stewart: "And, Senator, I know we're running out of time, but I do want to ask you this one last question. In the White House press briefing today, Scott McClellan said Congress was fully briefed on this program. Were you?"
Boxer: "Absolutely not. We know that only a few people were told about it. They objected. And their objections were just thrown in the ash can, and that's the truth. I should say the trash can."
Stewart: "Senator Barbara Boxer, thanks so much for spending some time with us."
Boxer: "Thanks a lot."
Stewart: "And we will follow up on Senator Boxer's assertions in just a moment, but consider the appearance of illegality. One of the reasons, according to Newsweek's Jonathan Alter, that President Bush personally intervened to try and stop the NSA story from ever becoming public earlier this month. According to the report, back on December 6, President Bush called the publisher of the New York Times, Arthur Sulzberger, and the executive editor, Bill Keller, called them to the Oval Office and personally asked them not to run the story. After holding it a year, the New York Times ran the story ten days later."
After covering the President's failure to improve his poll numbers despite recent efforts, Stewart continued.
Stewart: "At this point, let's bring in Newsweek White House correspondent Richard Wolffe. And, Richard, let's take a look at just those three stories we reported on. Barbara Boxer writing to scholars to see if the President has done something impeachable, wrangling over the legality of this NSA story and less than stellar poll numbers. Okay, is that a fair snapshot of what's going on with the President or is it a press pile-on? What do you think?"
Richard Wolffe, Newsweek: "Well, you know, the end of this year was supposed to be, as the White House wanted it, to be a Bush comeback story, and, you know, there are some wrinkles in that comback. Obviously, the polls have not picked up in the way they would have wanted to. There was supposed to be a surge in those polls, and this NSA story, while it's obscure and rather technical, it certainly complicated this whole presentation of the President as being the tough commander-in-chief who will do anything. You know, there are limits to what people expect of a President in a time of war."
Stewart: "Well, your colleague, and full disclosure, my pal, Jonathan Alter wrote in a Newsweek commentary that the only reason that the President did not want the NSA program to become public knowledge was because it was embarrassing and it would make trouble, not because it threatens national security. Does this fall into any pattern in this White House for dealing with sticky situations?"
Wolffe: "Well, sure it does. You know, the President likes playing the national security card, and frankly, you could see it in his press conference. He has gotten, in some ways, he's got the Democrats where he wants them to be because he can say that you're playing with the security of the nation, and it's all about politics, but, you know, I'd agree to some extent with Jon Alter in saying that this is more of a political problem than it is about national security in the end because, as the President pointed out himself, al-Qaeda and Bin Laden himself are fully aware that this government and the United States in general eavesdrops on communications. The question is can they do it without a court warrant or not. And, frankly, for al-Qaeda, that's irrelevant, so national security, it's not the problem here. It's politics and the law."
Stewart: "All right. When I spoke to Senator Boxer earlier, she referred to a presidential speech from April of 2004 when he said this:"
George W. Bush: "Any time you hear the United States government talking about wiretap, it requires a, 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."
Stewart: "Now the White House says the President was talking specifically about the Patriot Act in that instance. Now, is that explanation going to fly?"
Wolffe: "Well, it flies in the sense that, look, this was a highly-classified program, and he wasn't about to declassify material in the middle of a presidential campaign, but it's embarrassing. It adds to the political problems he faces, so it doesn't fly politically. But, you know, if he was guarding secrets, then there is some justification for him."