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Bush condemns leak of bank program

Officials criticize newspaper over story on anti-terror program

The administration asked the papers to hold the stories, arguing security would be compromised.


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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Bush administration on Monday stepped up its criticism of newspapers that disclosed the existence of an effort to collect bank records of suspected terrorists, singling out The New York Times in particular.

"Congress was briefed, and what we did was fully authorized under the law," President Bush told reporters. "And the disclosure of this program is disgraceful."

The chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, who has called the leak "treasonous," urged the Justice Department to prosecute the Times.

And Vice President Dick Cheney told a Republican fundraiser in Nebraska that the Pulitzer Prize the newspaper won for exposing the administration's no-warrant domestic eavesdropping program was "a disgrace."

"The leaks to The New York Times, and the publishing of those leaks, is very damaging," Cheney said. "The ability to intercept al Qaeda communications and to track their sources of financing are essential if we're going to successfully prosecute the global war on terror."

The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times both reported last week that the Treasury Department had subpoenaed information from SWIFT -- a financial clearinghouse that exchanges transactional information between banks -- as part of anti-terrorism probes since the 2001 al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington.

The Belgium-based firm deals with records of an estimated $6 trillion in transactions each day.

White House spokesman Tony Snow said the program was "legal and effective" and had led to the arrest of the Indonesian Islamic militant Hambali, the mastermind of the 2002 Bali bombings that killed more than 200 people.

The White House had asked the newspapers to hold the stories, arguing that national security would be compromised if they appeared. But the editors of those papers said last week they eventually decided to run the story because it was a matter of public interest.

"This is a hard one," Bill Keller, the executive editor of The New York Times, told CNN.

The newspaper won a Pulitzer earlier this year for its reporting on the National Security Agency's use of eavesdropping without court warrants to monitor calls from people suspected of having links to terrorists, as long as one party was outside the United States.

Critics have said the program violated federal law governing wiretaps, which requires the approval of a special court.

"There are, as with the NSA case, people who are experts and involved in the program who have questions both about its legality and the way, in their view, that what was supposed to be a stopgap measure has become somewhat permanent," Keller said.

Though the Bush administration argued in both cases for the paper to hold off on publishing the story, "I think it's not responsible of us to just take them at their word," he said.

Snow 'deeply disappointed'

But Treasury Secretary John Snow criticized the Times for characterizing administration arguments to hold the story as "halfhearted."

Snow said he invited Keller to his office to talk the newspaper out of publishing the story. He said the leaders of the bipartisan commission that investigated the September 11 attacks, several members of Congress, government officials and other experts urged the Times not to publish.

"What you've seemed to overlook is that it is also a matter of public interest that we use all means available -- lawfully and responsibly -- to help protect the American people from the deadly threats of terrorists," Snow wrote. "I am deeply disappointed in The New York Times."

Keller said he knew of only three people outside of the administration who were asked by the administration to contact the paper -- Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton from the 9/11 commission, and Democratic Rep. Jack Murtha.

"Not all of them urged us not to publish," Keller said.

Keller, who was accused of arrogance by Snow, told CNN, "I think it would be arrogant of us to pre-empt the work of Congress and the courts by deciding on our own that these programs are perfectly legal and abuse-proof."

"We spent weeks listening to the administration's case," he said.

Rep. Peter King, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, urged the Justice Department to investigate the leaks.

King, a New York Republican, accused the newspaper of violating the 1917 Espionage Act and a Cold War-era law restricting the publication of communications intelligence secrets.

"The activities of The New York Times are shameful and irresponsible, and put Americans all over the world at risk by identifying sources and methods and warning our adversaries of our capabilities and techniques," he wrote.

But Keller said lawyers believe it would be "a big, big stretch of the law" for the administration to seek criminal charges under the Espionage Act. And he said there was no sign that banks have withdrawn their cooperation with anti-terror investigations since the stories were published.

"We got a similar argument last year on the NSA eavesdropping case, that if we published it, telecommunication companies would be embarrassed by the disclosure that they were doing this, and they would be, you know, browbeaten by their shareholders into withdrawing their cooperation," he said.

"To the best of my knowledge, that's never happened."

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