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THE SITUATION ROOM

Domestic Spying Controversy Becoming A Huge Issue On Capitol Hill; Fight Over Wiretapping Goes A Long Way Back; FBI Maintains Database Of Surveillance Activities; Interview With Dick Cheney; Judge Says Teaching Intelligent Design Unconstitutional; Interview With Barbara Boxer

Aired December 20, 2005 - 16:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks very much, and to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM, where new pictures and information from around the world are arriving all the time.
Happening now, the seaplane that went down in Florida, the wreckage now being recovered. It's 4:00 p.m. off Miami. We're watching the operation live.

The Bush White House confronted with a past statement about spying. It's 4:00 p.m. here in Washington. We're asking some tough questions about what the president said and whether it was misleading.

Also this hour, political intrigue on Capitol Hill. Democrats and some Republicans turning up the heat over National Security Agency eavesdropping. How far will lawmakers go to get answers?

And religion versus science in the classroom and in the courts. Can schools require the teaching of intelligent design as well as evolution? It's 4:00 p.m. in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where a new ruling is inflaming the culture wars.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

The uproar over the president's secret domestic spying program is snowballing here in Washington, pushed along by a striking new discovery. It turns out that Mr. Bush suggested last year that any wiretapping requires a formal court order.

He made that statement long after he had authorized eavesdropping without formal court warrants. Our correspondents are following the many threads of this story, how it affects all of our privacy, your security.

Let's go to the White House first. Suzanne Malveaux is standing by -- Suzanne.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, of course, you're right. That controversy is definitely heating up over the domestic -- secret domestic spying program as some Democrats have started to use the I word. We are talking impeachment. And there are some moderate Republicans now who are joining in the call with Democrats for those congressional hearings.

Now, some 7,000 miles away, Vice President Dick Cheney decided that he was going to weigh in on this debate.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MALVEAUX (voice-over): Vice President Dick Cheney, traveling in Pakistan, vehemently defended the administration's secret wiretapping program, arguing it was justified to protect Americans.

DICK CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It is good, solid, sound policy. It is, I'm convinced, one of the reasons we have not been attacked for the last four years.

MALVEAUX: Cheney, who is cutting his overseas trip short to come home to cast possible tie-breaking votes on key legislation in the Senate, joined the chorus of administration officials tasked to aggressively hit back at critics who claim the president overstepped his bounds by approving some wiretaps without seeking a warrant as required by law.

CHENEY: We're doing it in accordance with the Constitution and the laws of the United States and it ought to be supported. This is not about violating civil liberties because we're not.

MALVEAUX: In April of 2004, in a speech addressing the Patriot Act, the president tried to reassure Americans their civil liberties were being protected, but he failed to mention the secret wiretapping program.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Anytime you hear the United States government talking about wiretap, it requires -- 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.

MALVEAUX: Asked whether the president was being forthcoming by not mentioning there had been exceptions, his press secretary said ...

SCOTT MCCLELLAN, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I reject that suggestion.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MALVEAUX: Now, I just got off the phone with Scott McClellan who has since clarified this and explained this a little bit further. He said there are two separate things that are happening here. There's the Patriot Act that the president specifically was talking about in that speech. And then of course, there's the NSA, the National Security Agency and the specific program that has become such a point of controversy here.

So Wolf, what Scott McClellan is saying is the president did not mean and did not mislead the public by omitting that, but certainly this is not something that most Americans would know this kind of distinction. Obviously, the administration was very much trying to keep that program a secret -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Because in that clip that you just showed what the president said a year ago in Buffalo, he says flatly, it requires -- "a wiretap requires a court order. Nothing has changed by the way." Those words "nothing has changed by the way" -- he said that even though he knew that something had in fact changed, that there were these secret wiretaps without court orders.

MALVEAUX: The way the administration is explaining this is that they're saying that he is talking specifically about the Patriot Act, saying that the Patriot Act did not change, that those provisions remain, that he did not mention and he was not talking about that NSA program.

That is the program, of course, very specific, when you actually wiretap those calls from the United States overseas to who they suspect is going to be a terrorist on the other end.

BLITZER: Well, as you know, his critics are already jumping on that statement that the president made in Buffalo saying either he forgot, either he didn't know, or either -- or perhaps he was trying to mislead the American public. I suspect there's going to be a lot more commotion over that clip from Buffalo. That's coming up. Thanks very much, Suzanne Malveaux over at the White House.

Let's go to Capitol Hill where many Democrats are seizing on the revelations about spying, trying to get some support from some Republicans and counter fire from others. This is becoming a huge issue on Capitol Hill. In fact, some top Democrats reject the administration's claim that they privately endorsed the classified eavesdropping.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. DICK DURBIN (D-IL), MINORITY WHIP: Whenever the administration is caught in a situation where the intelligence is flawed or controversial, whether it was the invasion of Iraq or this spying on American citizens, their first line of defense is, well the Democrats were in on this. They knew all about it. And that's just not true.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Both sides are also sparring over who's to blame for the failure to renew 16 key provisions of the Patriot Act. The anti- terror measures are just days away from expiring.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BILL FRIST (R-TN), MAJORITY LEADER: The Patriot Act expires on December 31st, but the terrorist threat does not. Those on the Senate floor who are filibustering the Patriot Act are killing the Patriot Act.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Let's go up to Capitol Hill. Our congressional correspondent, Ed Henry, is standing by. First of all, Ed, what kind of pressure is the president getting? We know he's getting a lot of criticism from Democrats, but what about from Republicans?

ED HENRY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Two Republican senators, Chuck Hagel and Olympia Snowe, who have maverick streaks, came out today and signed a letter saying they have profound concern about this whole domestic spying operation.

They also joined three Democrats in signing that letter and saying they want an immediate -- their word -- an immediate investigation, joint investigation by the Intelligence and Judiciary Committees to get to the bottom of whether the president violated the law, whether or not the Constitution was violated as well.

This adds to the fact -- as you know, Republican Arlen Specter has already called for hearings here on the Hill, and Specter also threw the White House a little bit of a curve ball yesterday, late yesterday, by asking Judge Alito in a letter saying he's going to ask Judge Samuel Alito at his Supreme Court confirmation hearings in January about the legality of all this.

That's not something the White House was expecting. So far though, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is being noncommittal about whether they'll have an investigation, Wolf.

BLITZER: Several Democrats since this secret order went forward were, in fact, notified, informed of the decision by the Bush administration. Usually the Vice President Dick Cheney let them know what was going on. What are Democrats saying in response to that?

HENRY: They're pretty irate. They think the president and vice president, they've left the impression that Democrats OKed this, maybe endorsed the program. Jay Rockefeller, a current Democratic senator, and then Tom Daschle, the former Senate Democratic leader, both have come out in the last 24 hours and confirmed on the record, yes, we were briefed but they were limited briefings.

We didn't have an idea about the entire scope, we did not endorse it. And they're also saying that they raised private concerns, Rockefeller going so far as to release a handwritten letter he sent to the vice president two years ago raising concerns.

But then Republican Senator Pat Roberts fired back pretty strong today and said that, in fact, Rockefeller over the last two years has been expressing support for this as recent as two weeks ago in a private meeting with the vice president. Roberts claims that Rockefeller actually expressed support for this spying program. So, obviously, there's a wide divide there.

Rockefeller shot back a short while ago and told reporters that Senator Roberts is reading from the White House talking points. Considering that Roberts and Rockefeller would be leading any investigation up here, you can see there's a wide gulf between these two lawmakers.

BLITZER: And is there any formal reaction, from Democrats or Republicans, to what the president said in Buffalo in April of last year when he said when we're talking about chasing down terrorists, we're talking about getting a court order before we do so, referring to surveillance or wiretaps? Anybody reacting to that?

HENRY: Democrats are privately saying that they think this would be part of any investigation. Clearly, they believe -- the Democrats do -- that the president was misleading the public and not telling the whole story. But the Republicans have not really reacted to it yet, but you can bet Democrats are going to keep the heat on, Wolf.

BLITZER: The president was in a tough bind. Though, at the same time, it was a classified -- highly classified order. And if we would have spoken publicly about it, he would have been violating that classified aspect of the entire program.

HENRY: Democrats say the same thing, in fact. And they say when they were briefed, they couldn't go public with their concerns because it was classified. So both sides, obviously, having a little difficulty explaining themselves, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Ed. Thank you very much. Ed Henry on Capitol Hill.

The Bush administration keeps making the argument that domestic eavesdropping without a court order has been limited and crucial to the overall war on terror. But beyond that, some top officials remain tight-lipped about the program.

Let's bring in our Jeanne Meserve. She spoke with the Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff earlier today -- Jeanne.

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Washington may be talking a lot about the domestic wiretapping program, but the secretary of homeland security is not.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MESERVE: Can you talk at all about how valuable a tool it's been? It's been classified as that ...

(CROSSTALK)

MESERVE: ... but no specifics.

MICHAEL CHERTOFF, HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: I will tell you this. When you talk about electronic surveillance in general, whether it's under any program or the Patriot Act, it is the critical tool in fighting terrorism. In World War II, we had radar to warn us about the bombers. We don't have radar for terrorists. The radar for terrorists is intelligence.

The best intelligence is often signals intelligence, meaning communications you intercept. So whether it comes from any particular program, the ability to get the widest range of communications between terrorists and their allies is probably the single most important weapon we will have in fighting terrorism and leads directly to our ability to disrupt terrorist acts.

So I will tell you without getting into this program or that program, that as a general category, in my view, you can't find a more important tool than the ability to have surveillance of terrorist communications with aiders and abettors.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MESERVE: Chertoff refused to discuss what criteria are used to select people for the electronic surveillance or to give any sense of the size of the program because he says the program is classified. Wolf.

BLITZER: A quick follow-up, Jeanne. What did he say about that new policy, the Transportation Security Administration of allowing those small scissors back on planes?

MESERVE: He said today what he said before. This is about managing risk. And right now, the department perceives explosives as being a much bigger risk than those small sharp objects.

Now he acknowledged that things like scissors could be used to attack flight attendants and passengers but he says the job of the Transportation Security Administration is to protect against terrorism, not other kinds of threats.

He did say also, Wolf, that perhaps it's sometimes a good thing to lighten up the pressure a little bit. He said you don't want to over-protect or under-protect them.

BLITZER: All right, Jeanne, thank you very much. Jeanne Meserve reporting for us.

Let's go up to New York. Jack Cafferty standing by with "The Cafferty File." Must be a mess up there today with that strike, Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Not too bad. The Transport Workers Union just less than an hour ago was found in contempt of court by a judge in New York and is now being fined a million dollars a day for their illegal walkout in violation of the Taylor Law.

However New Yorkers are tough and in circumstances like these, an extremely cooperative bunch. And we're getting along OK, despite the highly inconsiderate and illegal strike by the people who are supposed to keep mass transit running in this town.

Onto other things, if you listen carefully, you can hear the word impeachment. Two congressional Democrats are using it. And they're not the only ones. Senator Barbara Boxer sent a letter to legal exerts yesterday asking if they think the president's wiretapping of phone calls without a warrant is a, quote, "impeachable offense," unquote.

Boxer was on a radio show over the weekend with Nixon's former White House counsel John Dean. According to her, Dean said that Mr. Bush is the first president to admit to an impeachable offense. A Democratic representative from Georgia, John Lewis, said in a radio interview, "The president should be impeached if he broke the law." And Jonathan Alder points out in a piece in "Newsweek" magazine that if the Democrats get control of the House and Senate next year, impeachment is a possibility. He says that similar abuse of power was part of the impeachment charge brought against Richard Nixon in 1974.

But according to the Capitol Hill newspaper "Roll Call," top Senate Republicans consider even the talk of impeachment to be irresponsible. And Democrats like Joe Lieberman and John Kerry say it's not time to talk about impeachment yet.

Here's the question: Do you think it's an impeachable offense for the president to authorize domestic spying without a warrant? You can e-mail us at CaffertyFile@CNN.com or you can go to CNN.com/CaffertyFile.

BLITZER: You're going to get a lot of good e-mail on this, both sides and maybe some other sides as well, Jack, thanks very much.

And to our viewers, later this hour, we're going to be speaking with Senator Barbara Boxer. She's raised that word, that very sensitive delicate word, impeachment. We'll ask her precisely what's up her sleeve.

And also coming up, White House flashbacks to another time when spying on Americans created shockwaves. What's changed since then?

Also ahead, the evolving legal debate over the teaching of creation. A new court ruling challenging the theory of what's called intelligent design.

And up next, New York's traffic nightmare. Subway and bus workers on strike. The latest on the tie-ups and the price tag. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's head down to the CNN Center in Atlanta for a closer look at some other stories making news. That means Zain Verjee is standing by. Hi, Zain.

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, Wolf. It's nearly evening rush hour in New York City and millions of New Yorkers will have to make it home from work on foot or share a cab. Striking subway and bus employees have shut down the nation's largest mass transit system. A state judge ruled this afternoon the city's transit union is in contempt of court for striking and can be find $1 million a day.

In Iraq, Sunni, Arab and secular groups are demanding an investigation into preliminary election results. They say results showing religious Iraqi Shias taking a commanding lead in Baghdad, and southern provinces are tainted by fraud. The dispute could undermine U.S. hopes for increased stability in Iraq. Election officials say final results will be available early next year after hundreds of complaints, every single one of them have been addressed.

And Wolf, "Spiderman" is at this again. The French skyscraper climber nicknamed "Spiderman" scaled a 28-story building in Paris today. Alain Robert says he was protesting unfair treatment by U.S. police. Robert was arrested in Houston last month and charged with trespassing and drug possession. He says he's innocent. Robert has climbed some of the world' tallest buildings, including the Eiffel Tower and the Empire State Building.

More than 100 pilot whales are stranded on a New Zealand beach. Volunteers are trying to get the beached whales back into the ocean off Golden Bay. They think the whales followed a sick whale onto shore. It's believed that at least 10 of the whales have died. Some of the volunteers broke down when they heard stranded baby whales crying. Wolf?

BLITZER: What a story. Zain, thank you very much. Zain Verjee in Atlanta. The White House is again on the defensive, once again over the domestic spying issues without a formal OK from the courts. This is hardly the first time an administration here in Washington has been caught up in a controversy over wiretaps and limits on presidential power. Here's our national correspondent Bruce Morton. Bruce?

BRUCE MORTON, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, you're right. The fight, the president is trying to expand their authority and the Congress and the courts trying to restrict, it goes way back.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MORTON (voice-over): During the Vietnam War, government photographers snapped pictures. Protest leaders, government operators tapped their phones. The FBI eavesdropped on Martin Luther King. President Richard Nixon's attorney general, John Mitchell argued the government was free to tap without a warrant, any political dissenter it thought was a threat to national security. But in 1972 the Supreme Court rejected that argument nine to zero.

Justice Louis Powell, a Nixon appointee, wrote that the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution protects Americans from unreasonable searches and seizures and that that freedom cannot be properly guaranteed if domestic security surveillances are conducted solely at the discretion of the executive branch.

In 1978 after congressional investigations of the CIA, Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which set up a special court within the Justice Department to issue warrants for this kind of spying. But President Bush has been bypassing that court.

THOMAS MANN, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: President Bush has the most expansive conception of presidential authority under the constitution than any of his predecessors in modern history, and he has decided he has the power to ignore such statutes if he judges it in the interests of the country.

MORTON: So is the country in wartime to be governed by an all powerful president, as one questioner at Monday's news conference suggested? Congress has been largely passive on this issue until now. With this latest flap, Republicans as well as Democrats asking for hearings and wondering if the president is outside the law, suggests that may be starting to change. Wolf.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Bruce Morton giving us some good historic perspective. Thank you, Bruce, very much.

When it comes to government snooping, Americans may not have to rely completely on congressional action. Some cases, the feds are required to turn over secret information if requested.

Our Internet reporter Jacki Schechner has been digging. She's discovered that many of those documents are already online. What's going on, Jacki?

JACKI SCHECHNER, INTERNET REPORTER: Thank you to the Freedom of Information Act, the FBI's historical records are available online through the Web site. And you can take a look. You can search alphabetically and you can take a look and search by category. Some fascinating stuff.

We found, for example, during the Vietnam era, the FBI kept tabs on this organization, the American Deserters Committee. These are Americans who went to Canada.

They have correspondence, they have all sorts of letters and information. For example, the Black Panther party was supposedly helping this group. They kept tabs on the Black Panthers as well.

You can see all of this information, some 3,000 letters of correspondence available online from the 1970's. Also they kept tabs on Martin Luther King -- 16,000 pages, 200 of it available for you to dig online.

It's not just dissenters, people like that, organizations in question, but also historical figures like Ella Fitzgerald. She was not under investigation but there is a file on her available online.

BLITZER: Jacki, thank you very much. Still ahead, Senator Barbara Boxer joins us live this hour from Capitol Hill. The growing controversy over secret wire taps. What's up her sleeve?

The vice president, Dick Cheney, adding his voice to the administration's defense of domestic spying. We'll hear what he has to say at length and whether or not he's feeling the heat. He spoke with our Dana Bash.

And religion, evolution, and the culture wars. What should the schools be teaching your children? A judge's new ruling is fueling more debate. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back. Officials here in Washington are wrangling over the legality of the president's newly revealed domestic spying program, and now the vice president, Dick Cheney, is weighing in long distance.

Our White House correspondent, Dana Bash, had a one-on-one interview with the vice president after he helicoptered to a MASH unit treating earthquake victims in Pakistan. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DANA BASH, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I want to ask you about the debate raging back in Washington. And that is, of course, over the president's executive order saying that the NSA can survey in the United States for communications abroad.

The FISA law does allow for warrants within minutes, and if not, if minutes are too long, you can get it after the fact. So why is this necessary given the fact that a law is in place, it seems, to do exactly what you want to do?

DICK CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The president addressed that in his press conference last night. We made the decision that when we have somebody inside the United States who's in touch, not just overseas, but is in touch with a terrorist or a terrorist suspect or an al Qaeda affiliate that, in fact, that's proper. And the president's authorized the NSA to be involved in looking at that transaction.

If we had been able to do that before 9/11, we might have been able to pick up on the two hijackers who were in San Diego overseas in touch with al Qaeda individuals or organizations.

So the activity we've undertaken is absolutely consistent with the Constitution. It's reviewed very carefully by the president every 45 days. He has to personally sign off on it, has to be approved by the Justice Department and the Attorney General.

We've briefed the Congress on it about a dozen times. It is good solid sound policy. It is, I'm convinced, one of the reasons we have not been attacked for the last four years. It's absolutely the right thing to do.

BASH: You talked about the fact that you briefed Congress voluntarily, that you do have a review process. But let's just say, in ten years or a few years, a president is elected who doesn't want to do those things, but you've given him this kind of power. What happens then?

CHENEY: Well, it will be up to him whether or not he us it.

BASH: Does it concern you that somebody you met you wouldn't necessarily trust with that kind of power.

CHENEY: The fact is the law is the law. The Constitution is there. It's been adhered to and followed in this case. And you know, when you go to war, when you're attacked on your homeland, when you lose 3,000 people in a couple of hours one morning, and you're faced with a possibility that same organization might try to attack the United States with even a deadlier weapon, perhaps nuclear weapon if they could get their hands on it, or a biological agent, you have to actively go after the terrorists.

Now, after 9/11, the 9/11 Commission that criticized everybody in the government because you couldn't connect the dots. Now we're connecting the dots and they're still complaining. So seems to me you can't have it both ways.

The fact of the matter is this is a good solid program. It has saved thousands of lives. We're doing exactly the right thing. We're doing it in accordance with the Constitution and the laws of the United States. And it ought to be supported.

This is not about violating civil liberties because we're not. This is about defending the country against further terrorist attacks. That's exactly what we're sworn to do.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CHENEY: The vice president speaking with our Dana Bash earlier in the day in Pakistan.

Still ahead, a Democrat who's raising the specter of impeachment in response to the spying controversy plaguing the Bush White House right now. That would be Senator Barbara Boxer, she's about to join us live right here in THE SITUATION ROOM. I'll press her on what she has in mind.

Plus, the up roar underway over a judge's new ruling on what schools should teach about the origins of mankind.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: In the culture wars, supporters of the theory of what's called intelligent design are calling a new court ruling an attack on scientists who happen to believe in God.

But a federal judge sees it very differently indeed. He ruled today that a school board's order to teach intelligent design as well as evolution is unconstitutional. Let's go to CNN's Mary Snow. She's in Dover, Pennsylvania, where this controversial case began -- Mary.

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, behind me is the small Dover high school. Looks unassuming and quiet, but became the battleground for the debate over intelligent design. It resulted in a revolt on the school board, finally going to a federal court.

And today, as you mentioned, a judge issuing his ruling in a 139- page ruling saying that the teaching of intelligent design cannot be mandated in public high school classes, also saying that intelligent design was, in his words, creationism relabeled.

The reaction, as you might imagine, has been varied. Eight families had filed a lawsuit opposing the introduction of intelligent design in this high school. They are saying they are ecstatic, saying that members wanted to push religion in a public school agenda.

Others say that's not the case, that they wanted to introduce choice in high schools. And a lawyer for the people who wanted intelligent design to be introduced called this a very troubling decision. While the reactions have varied, just as the fight did, all do agree though that they believe that this case was really a test case for the rest of the nation, and they were very aware that it was being so closely watched -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Mary, thank you very much. We're going to have more on this story coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

But we'll go back now to the unfolding controversy here in Washington over the president's plan to eavesdrop on terror suspects without court warrants. Some Democrats now are raising the possibility that Mr. Bush's authorization of the plan may be an actual impeachable offense.

Joining us now, one of the staunchest critics, Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer of California. Precisely, Senator Boxer, where do you stand on this very sensitive issue of impeachment?

SEN. BARBARA BOXER (D), CALIFORNIA: Well, I stand on this ground. I was at an event with John Dean. I think your viewers remember him, or at least they've read about him. He was, of course, the White House counsel when Richard Nixon faced impeachment hearings. And of course, he resigned before them, had to do with abuse of power.

And we were both asked about this question of surveillance on American citizens without a warrant. And I was very cautious in what I said. I said, "Look, it's worrisome to me. I don't see where he has the right in the law to do this." And I called for hearings, and I said it was great that Arlen Specter said we would have hearings.

John Dean said it was the first time he had heard a president admit to an impeachable offense. And it took me back, because I think he certainly is one of the most knowledgeable people on executive abuse of power. So what I did was, I took his statement, I got permission from him to use it, and I sent it off to four scholars, constitutional scholars, to see what they think. And I'm calling for hearings on this.

BLITZER: So you're not ready at this point to say that he should be impeached?

BOXER: Oh, no. But I do have tremendous respect for John Dean on this question. And he felt very strongly. The other thing I've done is I've spoken, for example, to Senator Joe Biden, who wrote the very law that is supposed to be followed here. He's very, very concerned.

You know, all this talk by the president and the vice president, "Oh, we don't have time to go to a court. There's emergencies here." Well, I'm sure it's true, but that's why our law allows a president to go right away and apply for those warrants retroactively within 72 hours.

There is no excuse why they can't subject themselves to checks and balances in behalf of the American people to protect us, of course, from any threat, but also to protect our liberties and our freedoms.

BLITZER: The Democratic minority leaders in the Senate and the House, as well as the ranking Democrats on the intelligence committees in the House and the Senate, were all informed by the White House, specifically by Vice President Cheney about what was going on. Do you feel they were negligent in not reacting more vocally or aggressively behind the scenes under a classified nature to try to stop this?

BOXER: Well, that's the point. They did. If you saw today where Jay Rockefeller, one of the people who was, quote, unquote, "informed," was very concerned about this. And happily -- I am so happy he did this. He caught the vice president in another, if I might say, untruth. The vice president said, "Oh, no one said a word about this. Everyone essentially agreed."

Jay Rockefeller wrote a letter in his own handwriting because he was prohibited from telling anyone about this. He wrote a letter to the vice president and put it in a safe in the Senate Intelligence Committee room and brought it out where he's telling the vice president in this letter, "I have serious concerns about this. I'm very worried about this." So that's another fact, you know, that just is not an evidence that the people agreed with this. They didn't.

BLITZER: On that point, Senator Roberts of Kansas, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, disputes that point. He says that Rockefeller, who was the vice chairman, he said, "I have never heard any objection from him about this valuable program."

Roberts goes on to say, "Now, when it appears to be politically advantageous, Senator Rockefeller has chosen to release his 2 1/2 year-old-letter. Forgive me if I find this to be inconsistent and a bit disingenuous." So he's challenging Senator Rockefeller.

BOXER: Well, that is just tragic. Because if Senator Rockefeller had come out with this before, he could have been kicked out of the United States Senate. This was highly classified. The only reason that...

BLITZER: But he could have spoken with Senator Roberts about it.

BOXER: Well, no. You don't talk to anyone about it.

BLITZER: Roberts was informed also.

BOXER: Wolf, Wolf. Let's get to the facts here. You know, if Senator Roberts has a problem with Senator Rockefeller, fine. But the bottom line is Dick Cheney said everyone who was briefed just went along with this, they were told, no one complained. That is a falsehood on its face. It's absolutely a falsehood.

And then the president last year in April of '05 talks, and it looked to me like it was off the cuff, reassures the American people, "Don't worry. When we spy on you, we always get a warrant." So, you know, this is a very serious situation here. And the facts will speak for themselves.

You know, the greatest thing about America is the truth always comes out, and especially when there's lots of people who were after the truth. Lots of people are after the truth, and I think we will find out exactly why they couldn't take time to get a check and balance on their work, go to the court.

Again, the court has a history of always granting these warrants except in the most unusual circumstances. They even had a way to do it retroactively, and yet they didn't do that.

BLITZER: Senator Boxer, thanks for spending a few moments with us. This subject not going to go away. I'm sure you're not going to let it go away, and a lot of others aren't going to let it go away, either. Appreciate it very much.

BOXER: Thanks.

BLITZER: Coming up, he was forced to step down from his leadership post and he's facing a criminal trial, but Congressman Tom DeLay wants your vote anyway. We'll tell you about his reelection campaign.

And you've heard about President Bush's secret approval on domestic spying without court approvals. What's your feeling about that? Is it an impeachable offense? Jack Cafferty is going through your emails. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: In today's strategy session, more now on the new revelations and uproar over President Bush's secret approval to spy on Americans without court orders. Joining us now, two CNN political strategists. Paul Begala is a Democratic strategist, Bay Buchanan is president of American Cause.

Let's listen first of all to what the president said in April of 2004, more than a year ago. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: There are such things as roving wiretaps. By the way, anytime you hear the United States government talking about wiretap, 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.

It's important for our fellow citizens to understand, when you think Patriot Act, constitutional guarantees are in place when it comes to do what is necessary to protect our homeland because we value the Constitution.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: Those are pretty strong words from the President Bush, Bay Buchanan, that might come back to haunt him a little bit.

BAY BUCHANAN, PRESIDENT, AMERICAN CAUSE: Well, I think it's clear. You gave the whole clip there. And it shows he's talking about the roving wiretaps, he's talking about the Patriot Act. Those words are in the Patriot Act, and that's what he's trying to describe.

And that's one of the ways that we defend that Patriot Act is indeed, you have to go to the courts to get approval for the wiretaps. What the president in these secret wiretaps has done is it's another law entirely that' being applied, which is the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

BLITZER: Do you buy that?

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: No, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act is the law that is allegedly being violated. What you couldn't see because of that shot is as the president spoke, his pants were on fire. I mean, he went out of his way to say nothing has changed when he knew dozens of times, he had changed things. He thinks for the good, I think for the bad, but he clearly changed things. He changed the law, and many people think he violated the law.

But what he said in Buffalo, by the way, which I know is your hometown, was a flat-out falsehood, and I don't think people in Buffalo or the rest of the American people take too kindly to that.

BUCHANAN: This is one of the most highly secret programs that was taking place. Obviously, the president wasn't going to talk about it. What he did is clearly within the law because that act, particularly that Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, says that agents of foreign powers, when they're engaged in any kind of terrorist activities, the president can without any kind of wiretap go ahead and wiretap these individuals without any warrant, excuse me, from a court. They can wiretap.

So he is within the law. Now, you might say it's a close call, some lawyers say it doesn't interpret that way. But when you have a close call, Paul, you know what you do when you're the president of the United States? You side with the safety of the American people, not with the civil rights of some suspected terrorists.

BEGALA: The law is very clear. If there's an emergency situation, the government can go and wiretap someone, but they then have to post facto go to a court. Unchecked executive authority, most conservatives would agree, therein lies the way of dictatorship. That's what we started this country opposed to, King George and his untapped authority.

BLITZER: How serious is this impeachment word that we're now hearing among your fellow Democrats?

BEGALA: Well, that's the thing. It's not just my fellow Democrats. It's deadly serious any time that word is raised. As you know, I went through it. It's probably premature, frankly, because we don't have the facts yet. There ought to be congressional hearings. Republican Senator Arlen Specter says he's going to have them. There ought to be an independent council. So far yet, the president hasn't asked for one.

But it's not just liberals. Bruce Fein is a rock-ribbed Reagan conservative, served in President Reagan's Justice Department. Here's what he said yesterday: "If the president does not renounce this rather preposterous claim of inherent authority to run roughshod over every provision of the Constitution under the banner of fighting a war, Congress needs to consider an express statute reigning him in or even impeaching him." Now, Bruce Fine is certainly no liberal, and he served with you under President Reagan.

BUCHANAN: He's a libertarian, and I understand his position. But you know what here? Let's talk about the strategy of this. The president is masterful. This, I believe, will put the president up a couple more notches and the Democrats down. The Democrats have spent years in the wilderness because they are perceived as not strong enough when it comes to wars and defense in this country and national security now.

And so they are being hurt because what the president did is said, "Look, this might have been a close call. I'm siding with the American people, I'm keeping them safe, and if you have a problem with that, fine." He was masterful in his defense. If they keep up that strong defense, I believe that this president will be better off because of all that he's done."

BLITZER: We've got to unfortunately leave it there. But go ahead. Say something quickly.

BEGALA: He was not masterful, he was mendacious. As we say in Texas, don't pee on my boots and tell me it's raining. The president stood in Buffalo, New York, and said, "We always get a warrant," now we know he didn't. He didn't tell the truth.

BLITZER: All right, we'll leave it there. Bay Buchanan, Paul Begala, thanks very much. A good discussion here in our strategy session.

There is no better way to get a sense of what President Bush said when you actually see it, you hear it, or you read it for yourself. Our Internet reporter Abbi Tatton is joining us now to help us get a little bit better perspective -- Abbi.

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, all of this is available, all the public statements made by the president at whitehouse.gov. An extensive archive where you can go for yourself to read the speeches, to watch them and listen to them in some cases.

We're playing a couple of them for you right now. On the left of your screen, that speech from April 2004 in Buffalo, New York, where the president addressed the Patriot Act. And he said a wiretap requires a court order, nothing has changed. Also playing on your screen, President Bush from yesterday at that news conference where he addressed the 2002 executive order and said, "I authorized interception of international communications." Plenty more to search for yourself on this site going back to January of 2001 -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Abbi, thank you very much.

Up next here in THE SITUATION ROOM, is it the sign of a big political comeback for Tom DeLay? The former house majority leader making a move in Texas. We're tracking it in our political radar. That's ahead in THE SITUATION ROOM.

And some in Congress are expressing outrage over those revelations President Bush authorized secret spying here in the United States. But what do you think? Jack Cafferty wants to know. That's coming up. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Here's a look at some of the hot shots coming in from our friends over at the Associated Press, pictures likely to be in your hometown newspapers tomorrow. Baghdad, a burning truck. Militants attack two convoys carrying U.S. army supplies.

The Philippines, deadly monsoons. An air force rescuer carries this child to safety. Nine others have died in the flooding. Sri Lanka, baby 81, one of the most famous survivors of the tsunami, gets a bath. A year ago, he was found alone and near death in the rubble. Today, he's reunited with his parents and healthy.

Japan, freezing weather. These monkeys huddle around a fire to keep warm. The country's experiencing some of the coldest weather this year. Those are some of today's hot shots, picture often worth 1,000 words. Thanks to the AP for those.

Here's what we're tracking in our political radar right now. The indicted congressman Tom DeLay today formally filed to run for reelection in the Texas Republican primary. In the filing, he submitted about 1,000 signatures from supporters, an apparent effort to show he still has political strength. Two Republicans are running against DeLay in the primary as he faces trial on campaign finance- related criminal charges.

People lined up in California today for the funeral of Stanley Tookie Williams nearly a week after he was executed for murder. Top political figures and celebrities are among those paying tribute to the Crips founder turned anti-gang advocate. The Reverend Jesse Jackson, Louis Farrakhan, Snoop Dogg expected to attend.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger grappling with fallout over his refusal to grant clemency to Tookie Williams. His hometown of Graz, Austria, had threatened to remove his name from a local stadium. Angry about the opposition, Schwarzenegger is firing right back. He's now asking Graz officials that his name be taken off the stadium, and he's returning a ring of honor he received from the city. Bitter feelings all around.

And it's the question of the season. Should you say merry Christmas or happy holidays? New evidence the debate may be having an impact on the public. Check out our new poll, 69 percent of Americans now offer Christmas wishes up from 56 percent last year. That increase cuts across party lines with more Democrats, Independents, and Republicans now preferring Christmas greetings.

Still to come here in THE SITUATION ROOM, the controversy over domestic spying. Lawmakers are bristling. The White House on the defensive. Some Democrats already raising the issue of impeachment. What do you think? Jack Cafferty weighs in. He's got your email. That's coming up in THE SITUATION ROOM.

And it's evening rush hour in New York City. Do you know where your bus is, or your subway? You're looking live at New York City. We'll have the very latest on the shutdown of the nation's largest mass transit system. That's coming up. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Jack's in New York. Let's go there for "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: Thanks, Wolf. Question of the hour is this, do you think it's an impeachable offense, impeachable, for the president to authorize domestic spying without a warrant?

Tom in Washington, Virginia, writes, "Yes, I do think that unauthorized wiretaps are an impeachable offense, as Nixon proved. Mr. Bush's contemptible administration believes that a frightened populace is more easily malleable, so they forever wave the bloody shirt of 9/11 to justify doing, well, just about anything they want. And if you disagree, then you're helping the terrorists win. But when was the divine right of kings reinstated? Did I miss a meeting somewhere?"

Zach in Chevy Chase, Maryland: "While the authorization of the spying itself might not be an impeachable offense, it is certainly unconstitutional as it skip the check and balance of judicial review. Whether or not you trust Bush now to only spy on terrorists is irrelevant. If this surveillance is found to be legal, any future president can spy on Americans for any purpose without any oversight."

Michael in Redwood City: "It's certainly more of an impeachable offense than was Bill Clinton's affair with Monica. George learned from Bill's experience, though, and avoided the perjury trap by admitting his transgression up front and then challenging us to do something about it. He probably won't be impeached, too many Republicans in Congress for that. But history won't be kind to him, either."

Joe in Sioux Falls, South Dakota: "Absolutely not. The Constitution grants no right to privacy, the courts have. Why don't we just hand over the entire playbook to the terrorists? The mainstream media seems to every time a covert procedure could gain an advantage."

Palm in Reynoldsburg, Ohio -- Pam, rather: "Does this mean Watergate was not a crime?"

And Lance in Madison, Wisconsin: "I'd love to chime in on your question today, but I believe my emails are being tapped, so I'll refrain from answering."

BLITZER: Maybe Lance knows something we don't know. Thanks very much, Jack.

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