In an impassioned speech about President Bush's warrantless domestic wiretapping program, former Vice President Al Gore said in Washington, D.C., on Monday that "the president of the United States has been breaking the law repeatedly and persistently."
Citing the Bush administration's policies on torture, rendition and detentions, the winner of the 2000 popular vote said the president's "unlawful" eavesdropping program was part of a "larger pattern" of "seeming indifference to the Constitution."
Asked by ABC News after his speech whether President Bush's domestic spying program constituted an impeachable offense, Gore said it might and pointed to one of the three Articles of Impeachment that the House Judiciary Committee approved against President Nixon on July 27, 1974.
"That's a legal determination for Congress to make," Gore told ABC News. "But Article II of the impeachment charges against President Nixon was warrantless wiretapping, which the president said was 'necessary' for national security."
It can be an impeachable offense, Gore added.
The domestic eavesdropping program authorized by President Bush following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, bypasses a special federal court whose approval is required under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Ever since the New York Times revealed the secret program last month, the Bush administration has claimed that the circumvention of the FISA court was justified by arguing, in part, that Congress implicitly authorized the surveillance with the post-9/11 authorization to use military force.
Gore's speech drew fire from the president's party on Monday. Tracey Schmitt, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, issued a statement criticizing the former vice president, stating Gore has an "incessant need to insert himself in the headline of the day" and has a "lack of understanding of the threats facing America."
White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan added to the criticism at his press briefing on Tuesday afternoon. "Al Gore's hypocrisy knows no bounds. If he is going to be the voice of the Democratic Party on national security matters, we welcome it," said McClellan.
The former vice president refused to back down and reiterated his call for a special counsel to independently review the administration's actions surrounding the National Security Agency's domestic warrantless wiretapping program.
"It is clearly wrong and disrespectful to the American people to allow a close political associate of the president to be in charge of reviewing serious charges against him," said Gore.
But Gore is not the only one arguing that the warrantless eavesdropping authorized by President Bush conflicts with existing law and hinges on weak legal arguments. The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service reached a similar conclusion earlier this month in a 41-page legal analysis.
While appearing on "This Week with George Stephanopoulos" on Sunday, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Penn., said he, too, did not agree with the White House view that Congress effectively authorized the surveillance with its post-9/11 resolution.
A Bipartisan Problem
Specter and Gore part company, though, on the question of whether a president might possess special inherent powers as commander-in-chief that would make the National Security Agency's domestic spying program permissible in wartime. Whereas Gore is confident that the president does not possess such power, Specter is hoping to explore the issue when the Senate Judiciary Committee holds hearings on the legality of the president's program next month.
In his Constitution Hall remarks on Monday, Gore did not confine his criticism to members of the other party. He criticized both Republican and Democratic members of the so-called "Gang of Eight," who were secretly briefed on the NSA program but did not take action to stop the president's "illegal activities."
"Though I sympathize with the awkward position in which these men and women were placed, I cannot disagree with the Liberty Coalition when it says that 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," Gore said.
The Liberty Coalition is the "trans-partisan" civil liberties group that co-sponsored Gore's speech, along with the American Constitution Society.
Supreme Court Criticism
In his Martin Luther King Day remarks, Gore also criticized President Bush for nominating Supreme Court justices who he believes will not serve as an adequate check on the executive.
"Whether you support his confirmation or not -- and I do not -- we must all agree that he will not vote as an effective check on the expansion of executive power," Gore said with respect to Judge Samuel Alito. "Likewise, Chief Justice Roberts has made plain his deference to the expansion of executive power through his support of judicial deference to executive agency rulemaking."
Regarding specific recommendations, Gore called upon congressional candidates to appoint a special counsel to investigate domestic eavesdropping, which could become an issue in the 2006 elections.
He also appealed for new whistleblower protections, comprehensive hearings in the House and Senate and no renewal of the Patriot Act until adequate constitutional safeguards are added. He also wants telecommunications companies to "cease and desist" their "complicity" in this "apparently illegal invasion of the privacy of American citizens."
Gore's biggest standing ovation came when he said it was "simply an insult" to those who "came before us" to "imply that we have more to be fearful of than they."
In an effort to show that criticism of President Bush's spying program reaches across party lines, Gore was supposed to be introduced by former Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.), a former House manager in the impeachment trial of then-President Bill Clinton. Since leaving Congress in 2003, Barr has emerged as an outspoken critic of the effect the Bush administration's antiterror policies have on civil liberties.
The image of the odd bedfellows did not materialize, however, as Barr's satellite connection failed.
Teddy Davis is an ABC News field producer and co-author of The Note. He covers politics for the network's television, radio, and Internet platforms.