President Bush said Monday it was “disgraceful” that the news media had disclosed a secret CIA-Treasury program to track millions of financial records in search of terrorist suspects. The White House accused The New York Times of breaking a long tradition of keeping wartime secrets.
“The fact that a newspaper disclosed it makes it harder to win this war on terror,” Bush said, leaning forward and jabbing his finger during a brief question-and-answer session with reporters in the Roosevelt Room.
The Times has defended its effort, saying publication has served America’s public interest.
The newspaper, along with the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal, revealed last week that Treasury officials, beginning shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, had obtained access to an extensive international financial data base _ the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, or Swift.
The New York Times late last year also disclosed that the National Security Agency had been conducting warrantless surveillance in the United States since 2002 of people with suspected al-Qaida ties.
“Some in the press, in particular 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,” Vice President Dick Cheney said in a speech at a political fundraising luncheon in Grand Island, Neb.
“The New York Times has now twice _ two separate occasions _ disclosed programs; both times they had been asked not to publish those stories by senior administration officials,” Cheney said. “They went ahead anyway. The leaks to The New York Times and the publishing of those leaks is very damaging.”
Bill Keller, executive editor of the Times, defended the decision to publish the story.
“Most Americans seem to support extraordinary measures in defense against this extraordinary threat, but some officials who have been involved in these programs have spoken to the Times about their discomfort over the legality of the government’s actions and over the adequacy of oversight,” Keller said in a note on the paper’s Web site Sunday.
But Treasury Secretary John Snow said in a letter to the York Times that over the past two months he and other administration officials had engaged in a “vigorous dialogue” with reporters and editors at the newspaper trying to persuade them to refrain from revealing the program.
Snow said the effort to persuade the paper not to publish also included former Republican Gov. Thomas Kean of New Jersey and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., the co-chairmen of the Sept. 11 commission, as well as a number of members of Congress and top government officials.
In an interview Monday on CNN’s “The Situation Room,” Keller revealed that Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., who has been a vocal critic of the Iraq war, also urged the Times not to print the information.
“In choosing to expose this program, despite repeated pleas from high-level officials on both sides of the aisle, including myself, the Times undermined a highly successful counterterrorism program and alerted terrorists to the methods and sources used to track their money trail,” Snow wrote.
Keller told CNN on Monday: “I believe they genuinely did not want us to publish this. But I think it’s not responsible of us to just take them at their word.”
On Monday night, the Los Angeles Times Web site posted a letter explaining its rationale for reporting the story. Editor Dean Baquet wrote: “We considered very seriously the government’s assertion that these disclosures could cause difficulties for counterterrorism programs. … In the end, we felt that the legitimate public interest in this program outweighed the potential cost to counterterrorism efforts.”
White House press secretary Tony Snow said the story represented “a highly unusual departure” from the practice of newspapers honoring the secrecy of sensitive matters during wartime.
“The New York Times and other news organizations ought to think long and hard about whether a public’s right to know, in some cases, might overwrite somebody’s right to live, and whether, in fact, the publications of these could place in jeopardy the safety of fellow Americans,” the press secretary said.
Using broad government subpoenas, the money-tracking program allows U.S. counterterrorism analysts to obtain financial information from a vast database maintained by a company based in Belgium. It routes about 11 million financial transactions daily among 7,800 banks and other financial institutions in 200 countries.
Some Democrats in Congress have said the program raises concerns about intrusions on privacy and was another step in an aggressive Bush administration expansion of executive-branch powers. On the other side of the argument, Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, has urged the Justice Department to “begin an investigation and prosecution of The New York Times.”
Keller told CNN he didn’t expect to be prosecuted. “So far, the administration, and in particular the attorney general, while they have dropped some hints about prosecution, they have not embraced in full the argument that the Espionage Act applies to journalists,” the Times editor said.
Bush said Congress had been briefed on the program and “what we did was fully authorized under the law. And the disclosure of this program is disgraceful.”
He 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. And that’s exactly what we’re doing.”
© 2006 The Associated Press