House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert said yesterday that the New York Times deserves to receive a formal scolding from Congress for publishing a report on a classified national security program. His comments were the opening salvo in a debate expected today in the House.
“Loose lips kill American people,” the Illinois Republican said.
Many House Republicans agree with Mr. Hastert’s sentiment, and plan to support a symbolic resolution criticizing “certain media organizations” for revealing details of the Bush administration’s counterterrorism programs.
The resolution also condemns leaks to newspapers and the disclosure of classified programs, saying such action “needlessly exposes Americans to the threat of further terror attacks.”
The House “expects the cooperation of all news media organizations in protecting the lives of Americans and the capability of the government to identify, disrupt and capture terrorists by not disclosing classified intelligence programs,” the resolution says.
It does not specifically name the New York Times, but “it’s pretty obvious who it is,” a top Republican aide said.
The New York Times last week published a story detailing a top-secret CIA program that examines thousands of financial records to track terrorist activities.
President Bush has dismissed the report as “disgraceful,” and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld called the leak “shameful,” though the Boston Globe reported yesterday that some details of the tracking program have been widely published for years.
Mr. Hastert said classified information is “not news,” and is used to fight the war on terrorism. “Anybody that stands in the way of that, I think, jeopardizes American lives,” he said.
A draft of a substitute version offered by Democrats says Congress supports “appropriate surveillance” of terrorist finances and shows concern that leaks “may have made it more difficult to locate terrorists and terrorist networks, and disrupt their plans.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said the conclusions in the Republican resolution, which declares the program legal and respectful of civil liberties, “are not the result of congressional fact-finding or rigorous oversight.”
She added that Republicans have “selective displeasure” on leaks.
Lawyer Terry Francke said Congress is mistaken to assume that news organizations would agree to open-ended cooperation in keeping the government’s secrets.
“That’s the kind of blank check I think most Americans are not willing to sign, even if the Congress is,” said Mr. Francke, general counsel for Californians Aware, a nonprofit open-government advocacy group.
Rep. David R. Obey, Wisconsin Democrat, said punishing newspapers smacks of communism. Both the United States and China “seem to be eager to clamp down as much as possible on their journalistic critics,” he said.
Rep. James P. Moran, Virginia Democrat, called the resolution “nuts.”
The New York Times story is part of a pattern that portrays the United States as being unable to keep secrets, said Rep. Peter Hoekstra, chairman of the House intelligence panel.
“It’s damaging our ability in the future to develop sources and methods that require cooperation from various entities, individuals or countries,” the Michigan Republican said, noting that those partners will worry that if they help with intelligence, “there is a good chance it will be on the front page of a newspaper one of these days.”
More than 50 lawmakers this week signed a letter to the speaker asking that he revoke the press credentials of New York Times reporters.
Some called for criminal charges to be pressed against the newspaper, which defended the story as a “matter of public interest.” One Republican called the publication an act of treason.