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Transcript: Sen. Russ Feingold on 'FNS'

The following is a partial transcript from the April 2, 2006, edition of "FOX News Sunday With Chris Wallace":

CHRIS WALLACE, HOST: We turn now to Democratic Senator Russ Feingold, who has introduced a resolution to censure President Bush for allegedly breaking the law with his NSA warrantless wiretap program. Senator Feingold joins us from his home state of Wisconsin, and Senator, welcome to "FOX News Sunday."

SEN. RUSSELL FEINGOLD, D-WIS.: Good morning. It's good to be on the show, Chris.

WALLACE: Senator, in a hearing this week, you said that the president's wiretap program is, and I quote, "one of the greatest attempts to dismantle our system of government in history." And you called John Dean as a witness, who said that this is worse than Watergate. Senator, do you really believe there is any comparison?

FEINGOLD: Actually, I do think this is worse. Not in terms of personal misconduct. Our greatest priority in this country is fighting the terrorist elements that attacked us on 9/11. But when the president breaks the law and doesn't admit that he's broken the law, and then advances theories about being able to override the law on torture, and having a preemptive doctrine of war, what he's trying to do is change the nature of our government.

He's trying to turn our presidency into an imperial presidency. So this is one of the greatest challenges in our history, to Congress to stand up and make sure we still have the rule of law and checks and balances. That's actually why it's more significant than the very serious events that occurred at Watergate.

WALLACE: Well, Senator, let me explore that comparison with you if I can. Did President Nixon brief members of Congress more than a dozen times before and during Watergate?

FEINGOLD: Certainly not, and that's not the point. In fact, President Bush broke the law when he did not brief the entire Intelligence Committee...

WALLACE: But wait, wait, wait. That's not — but Senator, I mean the fact is, President Bush briefed the congressional leaders, both House and Senate, Republican and Democrat, also the leaders of the Intelligence Committee, Republican and Democrat, both House and Senate, more than a dozen times before and during this NSA wiretap program. Isn't that a big difference?

FEINGOLD: Chris, Chris, where I come from here in Wisconsin, if you break the law and you go tell people you're breaking the law, that doesn't make it OK. If you're breaking the law, you're breaking the law. In this case, the president does not have a legal leg to stand on.

And we have this problem of one-party rule in our system of government right now, where the Republicans in the House and the Senate are not standing up like some Republicans did during Watergate and saying, look, we need to stand together and say that the president needs to return to the law. We all support wiretapping terrorists. But the what the president is doing here is a frightful assault on our system of government, and he has to be called on it.

I could have proposed something more severe. A censure resolution is, in my view, a modest way to acknowledge the illegality and cause the president to return to the law.

WALLACE: Let me explore that Watergate comparison a little bit more. Has President Bush created an enemies list? Has he used the federal government to punish his political opponents? Has he authorized break-ins of his political enemies?

FEINGOLD: Well, again, Chris, this is not a criticism of the president as some sort of criminal law, day-to-day problem, like President Nixon had. This is really a much bigger deal. As George Will has said, this was the very reason for the revolution that we had in this country, is that we did not want a monarchical president. So I think these days, we look at the Nixon impeachment and the Clinton impeachment, we forget what the real reason for high crimes and misdemeanors was, to make sure that the president doesn't cause himself to be involved in personal misconduct, but that he doesn't try to achieve a power that is like King George III. So this is actually, even though in terms of the president's personal conduct not as serious, much more dangerous to our system of government, to our republic, and frankly, Chris, it weakens us in the fight against terrorism, to have a president who's thumbing his nose at the laws of this country. It isn't good for us.

WALLACE: Senator, I want to go back to the briefing of congressional leaders, because, as I say, he did brief congressional leaders of both parties more than a dozen times. It has been reported that when he set up the program, before he had actually started it, that the White House suggested perhaps there should be some legal changes made to the program, and the congressional leaders said no, because if so, the program will be late (ph). In that sense, aren't the congressional leaders complicit in the lawbreaking?

FEINGOLD: Well, of course they're limited in terms of what they can say about it, because of the rules in terms of the members of the gang of eight of the Intelligence Committee people. And I want to remind you that the president broke the statute from 1947 by not fully informing the entire Intelligence Committees. So he didn't even achieve the legal basis there. That's not the main point, but to somehow suggest that the president of the United States gets off the hook because he briefed a few members who couldn't talk about it is to miss the point.

The point is that the president is making bogus arguments about somehow when we authorized the Afghanistan invasion, we agreed to this. You know, that's — that's been laughed at in the halls of Congress. It's a very sad moment when the president can't admit, look — he can say he did it with good faith, he can say he was trying to do the right thing, but he has to admit he went too far here, and he can do what he needs to do under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. We all support that, we just need him to return to the idea of the law and not really create a very divisive situation in our country that weakens us in the fight against terrorism internationally.

WALLACE: Senator, let's talk about what's at the basis of all this, which is the NSA warrantless wiretap program that the president authorized. Have you been briefed on the program?

FEINGOLD: I have been briefed to some degree, but certainly not completely. I am on the Senate Intelligence Committee, and we got somewhat more information than other senators get, but then the full briefing is only being given to a sub-portion of the Intelligence Committee, and that's one of the reasons I decided it was time for the censure resolution, because it became clear that there was not going to be the kind of investigation that had to happen to find out exactly what this program is all about.

WALLACE: Do you know how the NSA decides whom to wiretap? Do you have any evidence that the civil liberties of any innocent Americans have been violated?

FEINGOLD: I know some things about it, but I'm not able to talk about it. What I can tell you is this: Is that I am absolutely convinced, after five hearings, three in the Judiciary Committee, two in the Intelligence Committee, that there is no legal basis for this. I may not know all the details, but it's clear from everything we've heard that you can't sort of create a new law or a new statute or a new constitutional provision.

The president has admitted publicly that he did this outside of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. They have basically been laughed out of the room when they say that the Afghanistan invasion resolution allows this. And all we have left is this idea that somehow the president has inherent power to make up whatever laws he wants. And you know what? That would be the opposite of our system of government.

So we know what we need to know to know that this conduct is illegal, but there's much more to be known about the program, and I think at least all members of the Intelligence Committee, and hopefully more members of Congress, would be carefully briefed on this, because how are we supposed to insert legislation that the president might want here or senators might want if we don't know what this program precisely is.

WALLACE: Well, let me ask you about that, Senator, because almost two dozen members of Congress have been briefed in detail about the program, members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committee. None of them, after those detailed briefings, have criticized the program in public, and I want to put up the comments of two Democrats who have been briefed. Senator Dianne Feinstein said: "I think it's a very impressive program." Congresswoman Jane Harman, the top Democrat on House Intelligence, said: "I believe the program is essential to U.S. national security."

Senator, it seems that the people who are criticizing this program are the ones who know the least about it.

FEINGOLD: Of course it's essential to national security. All we have to do is bring it within the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and I know that Congresswoman Harman has said specifically that she does not believe we need to change the law in this area, but it can be done within the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. So the very member of Congress that you cited has said we all think this program is important, but it can be done within the law. That's the point. The White House keeps acting as if we don't want them to be able to do this. Of course we do; we just need a court check and balance. That's what the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act is all about, to make sure that the White House doesn't run amuck, or somebody doing this doesn't abuse the law.

So there is no dispute about whether we should have it. And those very senators, including Senator Levin himself, have certainly not said publicly that it's essential that we go outside of the law to do this. I've heard none of them say this, and none of them will say that.

WALLACE: But none of them have talked about censure. So if you change the law, why not just change the law? Why do you have to call for censuring a president during the middle of wartime?

FEINGOLD: Well, how — are we going to have a system, Chris, where whenever the president wants to make up his own law, he goes ahead and does it, and we say, gee, Mr. President, you broke the law, that's too bad. Let's make a law to make what you're doing legal. What kind of a government is that? What kind of a system is that? And what kind of a message to our kids? If you don't like the law, just make up whatever you want to do and keep going. Frankly, it's outrageous. And if there isn't some accountability, apart from the need to possibly look at legislation, if there isn't some statement that the president can't just make up his own laws, what have we come to? Who are we? It's an outrage, and every member of Congress and every American should say to the president, Mr. President, we respect your commitment in the fight against terrorism, but you've got to return to the law. You've got to return to the way we do things in this system.

WALLACE: Senator, you talk about other members of Congress. Let me ask you about other Democrats, who you have accused of cowering before the president. In fact, when you held this hearing at the Senate Judiciary Committee on Friday — and let's put up some pictures, if we can here. Among the Democrats who didn't show up for your hearing, Ted Kennedy, Joe Biden, Dianne Feinstein, Chuck Schumer, Dick Durbin.

Democratic Senator Mark Dayton said about you recently, "It's an overreaching step by someone who is grandstanding and running for president at the expense of his own party and his own country."

Senator, are all of those other Democrats cowering?

FEINGOLD: Look, you know, this was one of the best attended hearings I've ever seen on a Friday. You know as well as I do, Chris, that senators take off after there are no more votes in the House, and we had seven or eight senators at this hearing. I think you're forgetting to mention that Senator Patrick Leahy came and said that he is inclined to support censure. So support for this is growing.

WALLACE: ... Kennedy, Durbin, Feinstein, Biden, all of them.

(CROSSTALK)

FEINGOLD: Well, Chris, you know very well that people often don't show up for hearings even during the week, and a lot of them took off because the votes were over. Senator Specter knew exactly what he was doing when he scheduled on a Friday.

But here's the main point. Chris, you know very well that I was the only senator to vote, the only Democratic senator to vote to hear the evidence in the Clinton impeachment trial. That I was the only — the first Democratic senator to call for a special counsel when it came to campaign finance violations of President Clinton.

I am one of the least partisan members of the United States Senate by all accounts. I call them as I see them. And if this were a Democratic president, I think you know and everybody else knows I'd be doing the very same thing. This has nothing to do with political ambition. Believe it or not, it's because I believe in my heart that this is a threat to our system of government, and I will say that on a Bible.

WALLACE: And now that you've had your hearing, are you going to give up this idea of censure, or are you going to push for a vote?

FEINGOLD: Well, of course I want a vote. The president has broken the law. The president has misled the American people in advance, and has thumbed his nose at the law afterward. I'm not talking about impeachment, although this may be an impeachable offense.

I'm talking about some accountability. We should have accountability, and if we don't get it right away in this Republican Congress, maybe we can pass a censure resolution in a Democratic Congress, which would be a little more balanced and be better for our country.

We have a terrible problem that we have a Republican president and two houses of Congress run by the Republicans, who are intimidated by this White House, even to the point of not standing up for the right of Congress...

WALLACE: But Senator, and we're running out of time...

(CROSSTALK)

WALLACE: ... you make that sound like it's a coup. I mean, that's the result of the election. Elections have implications.

FEINGOLD: Well, there's nothing wrong with it from the point of view it was inappropriate. It's just that maybe the country wants to turn this here to a little more balanced government, where you have at least one house of Congress saying, Mr. President, you can't just make up the law.

You can't just create whatever laws you want. We have to go through the system of government we've always had. You know, the Bill of Rights and the Constitution were not repealed on 9/11, and we all are unified in fighting the terrorists. But we're not going to give the terrorists the victory of destroying our own system of government in order to satisfy a White House that has very grandiose views of the extent of their powers.

WALLACE: Senator Feingold, I want to thank you so much for joining us today. Please come back, sir.

FEINGOLD: I enjoyed it. Thank you.