By Charles Babington and Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, June 29, 2006
President Bush rallied Republicans with another attack on the media last night, in remarks that highlighted efforts at the White House and on Capitol Hill to gain momentum from recent disclosures about classified programs to fight terrorism.
Senior administration officials say the president was outraged by articles in the New York Times and other newspapers about a surveillance program in which the U.S. government has tapped international banking records for information about terrorist financing. But his comments at a Republican fundraiser in a St. Louis suburb yesterday, combined with new moves by GOP congressional leaders, showed how both are working to fan public anger and reap gains from the controversy during a midterm election year in which polls show they are running against stiff headwinds.
Democrats, for their part, denounced Republicans for trying to divert attention from issues such as the Iraq war and high gasoline prices, and some terrorism experts said the White House is exaggerating the damage.
Republican House leaders introduced a resolution yesterday condemning leakers and calling on the media and others to safeguard classified programs. For the second time this week -- at an event on behalf of Sen. James M. Talent (R-Mo.) -- Bush attacked newspapers for disclosures he said make it harder for his administration to thwart terrorists.
"This program has been a vital tool in the war on terror," the president said, receiving a standing ovation. "There can be no excuse for anyone entrusted with vital intelligence to leak it and no excuse for any newspaper to print it."
Hours before Bush spoke, Democrats denounced what they saw as a White House-inspired campaign.
"This is all so people don't realize what else is going on," especially in Iraq, said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), who is heading his party's efforts to regain control of the House in the November elections. "This is disingenuous of both the White House and House Republicans."
The White House dismissed such claims. "This is not press-bashing. This is a clear disagreement about a decision to reveal a classified program," White House counselor Dan Bartlett said in an e-mail exchange. "Are we supposed to just sit back and take it?"
Last week, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times reported that the banking surveillance program used a new interpretation of the Treasury Department's administrative authority to bypass traditional banking privacy protections, sweeping up large numbers of international money transfers in a bid to identify terrorist funding operations. The Washington Post quickly matched the reports, which were posted on Web sites Thursday night.
There is growing debate about whether the disclosures aided terrorists or added to the government's burden. Victor Comras, a retired diplomat and consultant on terrorism financing, said he finds it "doubtful" that the disclosure had much impact because many terrorists have taken steps in recent years to mask their transactions, aware they might be under surveillance.
"I can understand why people are upset when any classified information is leaked, but I wouldn't call this a major damage to our national security or to the war on terror," Comras said in an interview. "A terrorist would have to be pretty dumb not to know that this was happening."
Administration officials disputed such claims, saying there is a big difference between a terrorist thinking the government may be watching him and knowing exactly what the government is doing to monitor financial flows. In a letter to the New York Times posted on the Treasury Department's Web site, outgoing Secretary John W. Snow wrote, "In choosing to expose this program, despite repeated pleas from high-level officials on both sides of the aisle, including myself, the Times undermined a highly successful counter-terrorism program and alerted terrorists to the methods and sources used to track their money trails."
The House GOP resolution, scheduled for a vote today, takes aim at the media and at government workers who may have shared classified information. Republicans said the resolution will allow their members to register support for Bush's anti-terrorism efforts and the anger that many feel toward news organizations. They said it also is designed to force House Democrats to stand with the media or Bush's criticism of it -- a choice many would prefer to avoid.
The House action came a day after several GOP senators criticized the media -- the New York Times, in particular -- and suggested that reporters and editors should be prosecuted for disclosing classified information. Members of both parties agreed that the uproar would help the administration, at least temporarily, frame the national debate on terms that resonate favorably with its conservative electoral base.
The House resolution does not mention any news organization by name, a decision that resulted from closed-door GOP discussions in which some urged colleagues not to overdo media-bashing. It defends the legality and effectiveness of the financial transactions-monitoring program. It states that 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 such as the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program."
A House Democratic staff member said the phrase appears to infringe on the First Amendment's protection of a free press. Democrats were drafting an alternative resolution last night but privately conceded that Republicans probably would not allow a vote on it.
The GOP resolution, sponsored by Rep. Michael G. Oxley (Ohio), also states that "the disclosure of the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program has unnecessarily complicated efforts by the United States Government to prosecute the war on terror and may have placed the lives of Americans in danger both at home and in many regions of the world." It "condemns the unauthorized disclosure of classified information by those persons responsible and expresses concern that the disclosure may endanger the lives of American citizens."
Staff writer Peter Baker in Clayton, Mo., contributed to this report.