WASHINGTON — President Bush on Monday sharply condemned the disclosure of a program to secretly monitor the financial transactions of suspected terrorists. “The disclosure of this program is disgraceful,” he said.
The program has been going on since shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. It was disclosed last week by the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times.
“For people to leak that program and for a newspaper to publish it does great harm to the United States of America,” Bush said, jabbing his finger for emphasis. He said the disclosure of the program “makes it harder to win this war on terror.”
Vice President Cheney echoed the president's comments. Cheney, speaking at a fund-raiser for a congressional candidate in Grand Island, Neb., called the leaks to the newspapers and the subsequent stories “very damaging. The ability to intercept al-Qaida communications and to track their sources of financing are essential if were going to successfully prosecute the global war on terror.”
“What is doubly disturbing for me is, not only have they gone forward with these stories but they've been rewarded for it, for example in the case of the terrorists surveillance program by being awarded the Pulitzer Prize for outstanding journalism. i think that is a disgrace,” Cheney said.
Program mines databases
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. It routes about 11 million financial transactions daily among 7,800 banks and other financial institutions in 200 countries.
“Congress was briefed, and what we did was fully authorized under the law,” Bush said, talking with reporters in the Roosevelt Room after meeting with groups that support U.S. troops in Iraq.
“We’re at war with a bunch of people who want to hurt the United States of America,” the president said. “What we were doing was the right thing.”
“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. He said that to figure out what terrorists plan to do, “You try to follow their money. And that’s exactly what we’re doing and the fact that a newspaper disclosed it makes it harder to win this war on terror.”
Snow speaks out
Later, White House spokesman Tony Snow said it was up to the Justice Department to determine whether there would be a formal investigation of the news leak.
“Certainly nobody is going to deny First Amendment rights. But 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 override somebody’s right to live,” Snow said. “And whether, in fact, the publication...could place in jeopardy the safety of fellow Americans.”
Meanwhile, the administration said it has informed major allies that the secret program has adequate privacy safeguards and will continue.
Tony Fratto, chief spokesman for the Treasury Department, said the contacts were made following the disclosure. “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 was clear to our partners that we value this program.”
Times editor defends reporting
In advance of Bush’s remarks, the New York Times defended itself against criticism for disclosing the program.
In a note on the paper’s Web site Sunday, Executive Editor Bill Keller said the Times spent weeks discussing with Bush administration officials whether to publish the report.
He said part of the government’s argument was that the anti-terrorism program would no longer be effective if it became known, 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.”
The note to readers was published the same day Rep. Peter King urged the Bush administration to prosecute the paper. “We’re at war, and for the Times to release information about secret operations and methods is treasonous,” the New York Republican told The Associated Press.
Keller said the administration also argued “in a halfhearted way” that disclosure of the program “would lead terrorists to change tactics.”
But Keller wrote that the Treasury Department has “trumpeted ... that the U.S. makes every effort to track international financing of terror. Terror financiers know this, which is why they have already moved as much as they can to cruder methods. But they also continue to use the international banking system, because it is immeasurably more efficient than toting suitcases of cash.”
NBC News' Kelly O'Donnell and The Associated Press contributed to this report.