John Dean, a key figure in the Watergate scandal who helped bring down then-president Richard Nixon, told a Senate hearing that President George W. Bush's domestic spying program was a worse abuse of power.
"I think it is important that the committee sometimes hear from the 'dark side'," the former special counsel to Nixon told a hearing on a Senate censure motion made against Bush.
Former White House counsel John Dean in Los Angeles, July 11, 2003. Dean, who helped push President Richard Nixon from office during the Watergate scandal three decades ago, heads to Capitol Hill on Friday to back an uphill attempt to censure President Bush. (Jim Ruymen/Reuters)
"No president that I can find in the history of our country has really ever adopted a policy of expanding presidential powers for the sake of expanding presidential powers.
"I think that is what we have going on in this presidency."
Senator Russell Feingold, a Democrat, startled the US establishment three weeks ago by laying the censure motion against Bush after it was revealed that the president had allowed the interception of domestic phone calls and email messages without a special warrant.
The Bush administration has insisted the measures were needed after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
But Dean said Congress had to protect its "institutional pride" against what he called a growing tendency "to let the president do what he wants and to have virtually no oversight".
Freedom to manouevre is important, he added. "They take note of that when they are not called to the mat. They push the envelope as far as they can."
Dean said that Nixon had also defended himself by saying he was acting for the security of the United States.
Dean took part in White House attempts to cover up the Watergate scandal before giving evidence against Nixon and serving 127 days in prison.
While many Republicans have cast doubt on Dean's credibility, his testimony was supported by Bruce Fein, a counsel under former president Ronald Reagan who said the Bush administration was assuming "wartime powers that have no ending".
Feingold's censure motion has excited the Democrats grassroots base but stands no chance. Three other legal experts told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the president had broken no law.
Robert Turner, a specialist on national security law at the University of Virginia, said that "every wartime president, even every wartime leader going back to George Washington, when he authorized the opening of British mail coming into the United States during the American Revolution, has done this kind of behavior."
A storm of controversy erupted after the New York Times reported in December that Bush had authorised the secret wiretaps without going to a special court that gives warrants for such actions.
While not supporting a censure, many Republicans have backed moves to pass legislation on the eavesdropping.
The administration has insisted that the spying was legal, only on communications between the United States and abroad and only concerned Al-Qaeda suspects.
It has said Congress gave authorisation for such tactics when it passed a resolution allowing the use of force after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
© Copyright 2006 AFP