WASHINGTON — The chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee called Sunday for criminal prosecution of the New York Times, saying its report Friday on U.S. government surveillance of confidential banking records "compromised America's anti-terrorist policies."
Interviewed on "Fox News Sunday," Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) said the newspaper compromised national security when it exposed a Treasury Department program that secretly monitored worldwide money transfers to track terrorist financing. The program, instituted after the Sept. 11 attacks, bypasses traditional safeguards against government abuse.
Similar reports were published the same day by the Los Angeles Times and other news outlets.
"By disclosing this in time of war, they have compromised America's anti-terrorist policies," said King, referring to New York Times reporters and editors. "Nobody elected the New York Times to do anything. And the New York Times is putting its own arrogant, elitist, left-wing agenda before the interests of the American people."
Calling the report "absolutely disgraceful," King said he would call on Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales to begin a criminal investigation of the newspaper.
The Bush administration urged the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times not to publish their reports, but the editors of each newspaper concluded that it was in the public interest to go forward.
"One of the most hotly debated issues in the country right now is the conduct of the war on terror," Los Angeles Times Editor Dean Baquet said Sunday. "It is our job to publish what we know about the government's role, to offer the public what it needs to know to participate in that debate."
Officials at the New York Times had no immediate comment on King's statements.
Senators from both parties declined to join the Long Island congressman's call for an investigation and defended the role of newspapers as guardians against government abuse.
"We have seen the newspapers in this country act as effective watchdogs," Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said on the same program.
"I don't think that the newspapers can have a totally free hand. But I think in the first instance, it is their judgment....
"I think it's premature to call for a prosecution of the New York Times, just like I think it's premature to say that the administration is entirely correct."
On CNN's "Late Edition," Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) said that although he would have preferred the New York Times not publish the information, "the truth of the matter is, they've uncovered an awful lot of things that the government has been doing that doesn't make sense as well."
Both senators cited Thomas Jefferson's maxim: "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."
According to the reports in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, the financial tracking program was part of an aggressive post-Sept. 11 effort to gather intelligence, tapping into the world's largest financial communication network for information on bank transfers.
The network -- run by the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, or SWIFT -- carries up to 12.7 million messages a day. Those messages typically include names and account numbers of bank customers -- private citizens and huge corporations alike -- that are sending or receiving funds.
To gain access to the information, the Bush administration used administrative subpoenas, which are not subject to independent governmental reviews designed to prevent abuse.
The SWIFT program is part of the administration's broad expansion of anti-terrorism intelligence-gathering methods, which also include warrantless surveillance of some phone calls and e-mails into and out of the U.S. The New York Times first reported on that program, run by the National Security Agency, late last year.
On Sunday, Specter indicated that Congress and the White House were nearing agreement on a proposal to submit all such eavesdropping to the secret federal court that considers intelligence matters.
"We're getting close with the discussions with the White House, I think, to having the wiretapping issue submitted to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court," he said. "That would be a big step forward for the protection of constitutional rights and civil liberties."
The White House had initially argued that the president could approve warrantless surveillance in terrorism cases under his powers as commander in chief, but critics contended that the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act, passed in 1978, required communications surveillance in the United States to be approved by the secret intelligence court.