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Gore: Resist Bush's 'excessive power grab'

Former vice president calls for probe into warrantless wiretaps

Former Vice President Al Gore called for a special counsel to investigate the NSA domestic spying program.


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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Former Vice President Al Gore called on Congress and the public to resist what he called "a gross and excessive power grab" by the Bush administration amid the war on terrorism, declaring that "our Constitution is at risk."

Gore said the use of the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans without court approval shows that President Bush "has been breaking the law repeatedly and persistently."

"A president who breaks the law is a threat to the very structure of our government," he said.

In response, Republican Party Chairman Ken Mehlman said Gore is "more interested in desperately trying to get attention than he is in focusing on the facts and the law."

"This is authority the president does have," Mehlman said. "It's authority that is consistent with protecting our Constitution and our civil liberties, and it's an authority that is critical to learning the lessons of 9/11."

Gore, Bush's Democratic opponent in the bitter 2000 election, spoke to the Liberty Coalition, which calls itself a "transpartisan" group concerned with issues of civil liberty and privacy.

Bush has defended his use of the NSA to intercept international communications of people in the United States suspected of having links to terrorist groups, telling reporters the program is legal and necessary to fight terrorism.

The president and other top officials argue that Congress gave him the power to act without the approval of a special panel of judges established by Congress under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978.

Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has disputed that assertion, as have others in both parties.

Gore said lawmakers specifically refused to give Bush that power when they authorized the use of force after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Gore said the wiretaps -- combined with Bush's assertion of the power to hold American citizens indefinitely as "enemy combatants," the authorization of harsh treatment of prisoners and his use of signing statements to declare how he will interpret laws passed by Congress -- have "brought our republic to the brink of a dangerous breach in the fabric of the Constitution."

"The disrespect embodied in these apparent mass violations of the law is part of a larger pattern of seeming indifference to the Constitution that is deeply troubling to millions of Americans in both political parties," he said.

Gore said the dangers of unchecked executive power can be seen in the war in Iraq, which the administration warned was necessary because Iraq was concealing chemical and biological weapons and trying to produce nuclear arms. No such weapons were found after the March 2003 invasion.

He quoted "1984" author George Orwell, who wrote that people are capable of believing things that aren't true until "a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield."

"Twenty-two hundred American soldiers have lost their lives as this false belief, as this belief bumped into a solid reality," he said. "Indeed, whenever power is unchecked and unaccountable, it almost inevitably leads to gross mistakes and abuses."

To emphasize the intended bipartisan nature of Monday's event, organizers had planned to have former U.S. Rep. Bob Barr, a Georgia Republican, introduce Gore via video link.

But technical problems prevented Barr, a conservative critic of the NSA program and a frequent CNN contributor, from introducing Gore.

Speaking later Monday on CNN, Barr said, "There are important constitutional principles that are involved here that seem to have been violated. ... I agree with the [former] vice president that these are very serious matters. They need to be looked into."

Barr was one of the House managers during President Clinton's impeachment trial in 1999.

"In spite of our differences over ideology and politics, we are in strong agreement that the American values we hold most dear have been placed at serious risk by the unprecedented claims of the administration to a truly breathtaking expansion of executive power," Gore said.

Gore said the Republican leadership of Congress has acted "as if it is entirely subservient to the executive branch," with lawmakers too busy raising money for re-election to challenge Bush.

"Democrats as well as Republicans in the Congress must share the blame for not taking action to protest and seek to prevent what they consider a grossly unconstitutional program," he said.

He also called on Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the warrantless wiretapping program -- and he urged voters to make it an issue in November's congressional races, because "our Constitution is at risk."

On Sunday, Specter said on ABC's "This Week" that he did not believe the 2001 congressional resolution authorizing retaliation for the al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington, trumped the 1978 FISA law. (Full story)

But Specter acknowledged that the commander in chief may have "collateral, different powers" in wartime.

The Pennsylvania Republican vowed his committee would look into the matter in hearings set for February.

Asked what remedies would exist if Congress were to find the president has broken the law, Specter said, "Impeachment is a remedy." But he played down that prospect, calling it remote and adding, "I don't see any talk about impeachment here."

Instead, Specter said, "the principal remedy ... under our society, is to pay a political price."

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