WASHINGTON – Published reports revealing a secret government program that tracks money moving in and out of the United States have endangered Americans and undermines the War on Terror, President Bush said Monday.
"The disclosure of this program is disgraceful," Bush said during a question and answer session with reporters at the White House. "For people to leak that program and for a newspaper to publish it does great harm to the United States of America."
Disclosure "makes it harder to win this War on Terror," the president said.
The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times last week all reported on a Treasury-CIA cooperative plan that conducts bank record searches to follow money across borders. It first began in the weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
Using broad government subpoenas, the program allows U.S. counterterrorism analysts to obtain financial information from a vast database maintained by a company based in Belgium. That company, the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications, or SWIFT, routes about 11 million financial transactions daily among 7,800 banks and other financial institutions in 200 countries.
Since last week's publication of the program, The New York Times in particular has taken the brunt of criticism by lawmakers, conservative publications and national security analysts who say the writers and editors of the Times, including Executive Editor Bill Keller, exceeded the law and violated statutes against transmitting communications intelligence.
"I'm calling on the attorney general to begin a criminal investigation and prosecution of The New York Times, its reporters, the editors that worked on this, and the publisher. We're in a time of war ... and what they've done here is absolutely disgraceful. I believe they violated the Espionage Act" and another statute, said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.
"We're at war, and for the Times to release information about secret operations and methods is treasonous," he later told The Associated Press.
Bush on Monday lashed out at The New York Times report and the leaks that produced it. He said the bank transaction searches are legal, do not violate privacy rights and Congress had been briefed on the program.
"What we were doing was the right thing. Congress was aware of it and we were within the law to do so. The American people expect this government to protect our constitutional liberties and at the same time make sure we understand what the terrorists are trying to do," Bush said.
"The 9/11 commission recommended that the government be robust in tracing money. If you want to figure out what the terrorists are doing, you try to follow their money," he added.
Vice President Dick Cheney, in a speech Monday at Grand Island, Neb., said, "Some of the press, particularly The New York Times, have made the job of defending against further terrorist attacks more difficult by insisting on publishing detailed information about vital national security programs."
The president's response to the report was very much the same as the one he gave last year when The New York Times first published details about the National Security Agency's warrantless wiretap program. Both the phone eavesdropping and bank record searches are said to have helped in domestic and foreign terrorism investigations.
In response to the criticism, Keller wrote in Monday's edition that he did exactly what any upstanding member of the Fourth Estate would do.
"We believe The Times and others in the press have served the public interest by accurately reporting on these programs so that the public can have an informed view of them," Keller wrote in a letter to readers.
"It's not our job to pass judgment on whether this program is legal or effective, but the story cites strong arguments from proponents that this is the case. ... A reasonable person, informed about this program, might well decide to applaud it. That said, we hesitate to pre-empt the role of legislators and courts, and ultimately the electorate, which cannot consider a program if they don't know about it," Keller wrote.
Echoing an argument Keller made in his letter, David Ignatius, a columnist for The Washington Post, said the legality of the program has not been decided by the courts.
"It is said that it was legal. I think we're going to need to take a careful look at that question and make sure that the law was followed, that what most Americans would see as appropriate privacy conditions were maintained," Ignatius said.
He added that the program was obviously useful in tracking the transmission of terrorist funds and "is the kind of thing you want an aggressive government to be doing in its war on terrorism."
Legal Program, Illegal Publication?
Bill Kristol, publisher of The Weekly Standard and a FOX News contributor, said not only was The New York Times arrogant in its decision-making process, but Congress needs to think about "whether the laws on the book are written in the right way" to address to what extent newspapers are culpable when they reveal state secrets.
"[The New York Times] wants to publish anything it gets its hands on. I guess [Keller] thinks it's a big scoop for him," Kristol said. "I think Congress should call Mr. Keller before it as it would call the executive of another corporation who had done something questionable and make Keller defend in a serious way his decision, and the right to appropriate to himself the decision, about whether to reveal covert and classified programs."
Asked whether Congress would hold hearings, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said he did not think it was ready to get into the act.
"From a free speech standpoint, true they can do whatever they want. In terms of the safety and security of the American people" they crossed the line, Frist told FOX News.
But Gabriel Schoenfeld, senior editor of Commentary magazine, wrote in an article published Monday that if The New York Times "were to take a look at the U.S. Criminal Code, they would find that they have run afoul not of the Espionage Act but of another law entirely: Section 798 of Title 18, the so-called Comint statute."
Schoenfeld explained that the law, written in the wake of Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, aims to give intelligence agencies a leg up against foreign adversaries by prosecuting anyone who passes on communications intelligence that "could be prejudicial to the safety or interest of the United States or for the benefit of any foreign government to the detriment of the United States."
He said that Attorney General Al Gonzales is understandably cautious about prosecuting journalists, but "what might look like a prudent exercise of prosecutorial discretion will, in the face of The Times' increasingly reckless behavior, send a terrible message. The Comint statute, like numerous other laws on the books limiting speech in such disparate realms as libel, privacy, and commercial activity, is fully compatible with the First Amendment."
White House Press Secretary Tony Snow refused to speculate on whether any legal action would be taken against the newspaper, saying all questions about prosecutions will be referred to the Department of Justice
"There really is a process, the criminal referral process, by which people would investigate whether these kinds of revelations and leaks would violate the law. So we'll have to see whether such things — and typically, referrals are not made public, and certainly I'm not going to do it now."
Snow added, however, "if The New York Times decides that it is going to try to assume responsibility for determining which classified secrets remain classified and which don't, it ought to accept some of the obligations of that responsibility. It ought to be able to take the heat as well."
No Chilling Effect Yet
In his letter, Keller said he was not convinced by the administration's argument that disclosing the program would reduce its effectiveness because international bankers would be unwilling to cooperate and terrorists would find other ways to move money.
"We don't know what the banking consortium will do, but we found this argument puzzling," Keller said, pointing out that the banks were under subpoena to provide the information. "The Bush administration and America itself may be unpopular in Europe these days, but policing the byways of international terror seems to have pretty strong support everywhere."
Treasury Department spokesman Tony Fratto said Monday that his agency has informed major allies that the secret program has adequate privacy safeguards and will continue.
"We have made a point of reaching out to our partners in the international community to make sure they understand our views and the safeguards we have in place," he said. "We want to make sure it's clear to our partners that we value this program."
Meanwhile, Belgium's government said Monday it was not responsible for supervising the handover of confidential financial records to U.S. authorities for the War on Terror. The National Bank of Belgium said in a statement that its main role was to supervise financial stability and that it had no power to prevent SWIFT from passing data to the United States.
FOX News' Wendell Goler, Sharon Kehnemui Liss and The Associated Press contributed to this report.