WASHINGTON – The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, a former newspaperman himself, argued Tuesday that The New York Times served no public interest when it exposed an effective and classified program that tracked terrorist money transfers.
Sen. Pat Roberts also asked Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte to make an official assessment of the damage done by publication of stories by the Times and other newspapers about the SWIFT account tracking program.
Click in the video box to the right to watch a report by FOX News' Jim Angle.
"We cannot continue to operate in a system where the government takes steps to counter terrorism while the media actively works to disclose those operations without any regard for protection of lives, sources and legal methods," said Roberts, R-Kan., who as intelligence chairman has been briefed extensively on the efforts.
A group of Republican senators flatly accused the Times of damaging the war against Al Qaeda and argued vigorously that the paper, which took the lead in exposing the program, was irresponsible.
"This isn't about freedom of the press; it's about what is prudent in a time of war. The New York Times has the right to print whatever it sees fit to print. I want to make that very clear. But just because you can doesn't mean that you should," Roberts said.
He added that the box on the paper's front page which reads "All the news that's fit to print" could be changed to "all the classified information that makes our country less safe."
Roberts then went further, saying if Al Qaeda changes its methods because of the papers' disclosures, the next attack should make decision-makers at the paper shudder at their own actions.
"If that attack comes, the people who have written these stories and the people who made their decisions should look in the mirror," he said.
In December, Bush acknowledged the National Security Agency's program to monitor without prior warrants the phone calls of individuals in the United States speaking internationally with suspected terrorists.
Last week, senior administration officials also confirmed that the Treasury Department and CIA were using administrative subpoenas to pull information from an extensive financial database, called the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication. The Brussels, Belgium-based system captures information on about 11 million financial transactions daily among 7,800 banks and other financial institutions in 200 countries.
Roberts asked Negroponte to determine how much damage has been done by the most recent leak as well as past stories on the NSA's terrorist surveillance program. Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., added that former CIA Director Porter Goss had told him previously that the NSA disclosures had resulted in what he called "severe damage" to the U.S. ability to eavesdrop on terrorists.
On the Treasury Department's program to track terrorist financing, Bond said some damage is already clear — allies are now asking how they can cooperate with the United States if its government can't keep a secret.
"Some in the media continue to urge the administration to get more international cooperation. Well, you can kiss international cooperation goodbye when international efforts are blown in our media," he said.
Rep. Peter King, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, has previously said he wants the Times' editors prosecuted for disclosing classified information. He told FOX News on Tuesday that the media should be part of the effort to find out who leaked the story to the newspaper.
"One way to get them, to find out who they are is take New York Times reporters and put them in before the grand jury and demand that they tell who their sources were. And if reporters don't disclose their sources, then put them in jail until they do," King said.
Roberts and others also emphasized that this program was overseen by Congress. Key members of three committees were briefed early on, many others more recently.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said he wants to have hearings on whether the espionage laws should be rewritten to clearly cover the actions of journalists who disclose sensitive intelligence.
"I think it's simply intolerable to have a situation where there are some of those in the media who set themselves up as the judge of whether classified information ought to be made public or not," Cornyn said.
But he said he wasn't ready to decide whether those who receive information and then publicize it are covered by the statutes in the Espionage Act.
"We don't know whether there may be some claimed constitutional right to divulge classified information or not. I think we need to have an oversight hearing to explore all of those considerations," he said.
On Wednesday, the House weighs in on the issue, taking up a resolution to condemn both those who leak classified information and those who publish it.
Click in the box near the top of the story to watch a report by FOX News' Jim Angle.