- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 27, 2006

A clearly incensed President Bush yesterday called the public disclosure of a secret terrorist-tracking program “disgraceful,” and he defended his decision to allow U.S. counterterrorism analysts to obtain international financial records as a key tool in the war against terror.

“We’re at war with a bunch of people who want to hurt the United States of America, and for people to leak that program, and for a newspaper to publish it, does great harm,” the president told reporters in the White House’s Roosevelt Room.

Three news organizations — the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times — revealed the existence of the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program last week, but the White House quickly pointed out that none of the news articles purported privacy abuses or charged that it was illegal. Congressional leaders, including those in the House intelligence committees, had been informed of the program “from the very beginning,” the White House said.

“Congress was briefed,” Mr. Bush said yesterday. “And what we did was fully authorized under the law. … And the fact that a newspaper disclosed it makes it harder to win this war on terror.”

The president clearly wanted to express his anger over the disclosure: He usually takes just two questions from reporters in what are known as “pool sprays.” Yesterday, he took five, until he received one on the program. “The disclosure of this program is disgraceful,” he said.

Vice President Dick Cheney, in a speech yesterday in 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.”

In the weeks following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, U.S. Treasury officials obtained access to an extensive international financial database — the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT).

The cooperative, based in Belgium, handles financial transactions from thousands of institutions in more than 200 countries.

According to the New York Times, the program helped snare the Indonesian terrorist known as Hambali, who orchestrated the Bali resort bombings in 2002. The Wall Street Journal said that an accomplice in the July 2005 London subway bombings was captured through use of the program.

Mr. Bush said tracking global financial transactions by terrorists is crucial.

“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 said.

The commission’s report in 2004 said that “vigorous efforts to track terrorist financing must remain front and center in U.S. counterterrorism efforts.” A later Final Report Card gave the federal government an A- on its efforts — one of the highest grades for any program it evaluated — saying it has “made significant strides in using terrorism finance as an intelligence tool.”

The White House says the program has numerous safeguards. For instance, intelligence agents are required to obtain subpoenas and can only search financial records that specifically tie suspects to al Qaeda; oversight is conducted by a board of independent auditors, who ensure that the subpoenas pass muster; and no U.S. banking records are included in the SWIFT database.

The program’s disclosure has irked some Republicans on Capitol Hill. Rep. Peter T. King of New York, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, on Sunday called 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. … I believe they violated the Espionage Act.”

Equally outraged are Democrats, complaining that the program is similar to Mr. Bush’s ordering of National Security Agency surveillance of telephone calls and e-mails of terror suspects.

“Like the domestic surveillance program exposed last December, the Bush administration’s efforts to tap into the financial records of thousands of Americans appear to rely on justifications concocted without regard to current law,” Rep. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat, said on Friday.

White House spokesman Tony Snow said the newspapers’ decision to divulge the program was serious, adding that it is now 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,” Mr. Snow said. “And whether, in fact, the publication … could place in jeopardy the safety of fellow Americans.”

Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, was hesitant to condemn the New York Times for publishing the story.

“I’m very reluctant … to superimpose my judgment on the news media,” he told a group of editors and reporters at The Washington Times in a meeting yesterday. “Before I’d do that, I’d want to know how the United States was damaged by what they were doing. I’d require some showing of damage before I’d consider it.”

• Amy Fagan contributed to this report.

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