By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 27, 2006
President Bush offered an impassioned defense of his secret international banking surveillance program yesterday, calling it a legal and effective tool for hunting down terrorists and denouncing the media's disclosure of it as a "disgraceful" act that does "great harm" to the nation.
The president used a White House appearance with supporters of troops in Iraq to lash out at newspapers that revealed the program, which has examined hundreds of thousands of private banking records from around the world. His remarks led off a broader White House assault later amplified by Vice President Cheney and Treasury Secretary John W. Snow.
"What we did was fully authorized under the law," Bush said in an angry tone as he leaned forward in his chair and wagged his finger. "And the disclosure of this program is disgraceful. 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 to the United States of America."
Bush denied overstepping his bounds by not seeking court or congressional approval for the program in the nearly five years since it was established following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. "What we were doing was the right thing," he said. "Congress was aware of it, and we were within the law to do so."
Critics said Bush was trying to divert attention from his own actions. Bush, Cheney and other Republicans "have adopted a shoot-the-messenger strategy by attacking the newspaper that revealed the existence of the secret bank surveillance program rather than answering the disturbing questions that those reports raise about possible violations of the U.S. Constitution and U.S. privacy laws," said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.).
Under the program, U.S. officials tapped records of the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications, or SWIFT, an international banking cooperative owned by nearly 8,000 banks in more than 20 countries. The Treasury Department used administrative subpoenas that do not involve a judge to search for terrorist transactions and hired Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. to verify that the data were properly handled.
The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal first reported the program on their Web sites Thursday night. The Washington Post confirmed the story and reported it in its Friday editions. But the New York Times was the focus of White House ire because it led the way in investigating and because it disclosed the National Security Agency telephone surveillance program last year.
"Some of 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," Cheney said at a Republican fundraiser in Nebraska.
Referring to the NSA program, he added: "What is doubly disturbing for me is that not only have they gone forward with these stories, but they've been rewarded for it, for example, in the case of the terrorist surveillance program, by being awarded the Pulitzer Prize for outstanding journalism. I think that is a disgrace."
Neither Bush nor Cheney raised the prospect of investigating journalists, as proposed by Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), who called on the Justice Department to prosecute the New York Times for "treasonous" action.
An investigation into how the information was revealed would normally follow such a disclosure. But officials denied that the rhetoric was an attempt to intimidate the media.
"It's not designed to have a chilling effect," White House press secretary Tony Snow said. "If the New York Times wants a spirited debate about it, it's got it. But 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 overwrite somebody's right to live."
A spokeswoman for the Times had no comment yesterday, pointing instead to an open letter by Executive Editor Bill Keller on Sunday. Keller noted that the Framers intended an independent press as a check on government abuse of power, and "rejected the idea that it is wise, or patriotic, to always take the President at his word, or to surrender to the government important decisions about what to publish."
Keller said he took seriously the government's private entreaties not to publish but decided that printing the story was in the public's interest. He argued that terrorist financiers knew the international banking system is being monitored and said administration officials seemed more worried that bankers would back out of the system. The argument that disclosure would change terrorist tactics, he wrote, "was made in a half-hearted way."
John Snow fired back yesterday in a letter to Keller, accusing him of "breathtaking arrogance" for presuming to know what terrorists know or do. "Your charge that our efforts to convince The New York Times not to publish were 'half-hearted' is incorrect and offensive," the Treasury secretary wrote.
Unlike the NSA program, the banking surveillance has not triggered broad outrage among congressional Democrats. Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), said that "it doesn't seem to be based on the same shaky legal analysis" as the NSA program. But he added that Reid, who was briefed on it for the first time a few weeks ago, is concerned that "the administration has continued to ignore its duty to keep Congress informed."
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), a Bush critic, issued a tempered statement yesterday: "Allowing law enforcement to examine bank records in order to stop the flow of money to terrorists makes a lot of sense, and this program appears to allow for just that. The real question here, as with so many other programs run by this Administration, is whether they are obeying the laws we have on the books to protect Americans from unnecessary invasions of their privacy."