WASHINGTON — President Bush on Monday criticized newspapers for exposing a secret U.S. government program that monitors international banking transactions, calling the disclosures a "disgraceful" act that could assist terrorists.
Bush made his remarks during a White House meeting with organizations that support the war in Iraq, echoing comments Friday from Vice President Dick Cheney and conservative commentators. They had condemned the reports last week in the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and other media outlets.
The newspapers published their reports despite requests from the Bush administration to withhold the stories. The controversy has sparked renewed debate about whether the government has gone too far in tracking terrorists, and whether news organizations are obstructing the terrorist-tracking effort by exposing the government's methods.
Bush said Monday that members of Congress had been briefed in advance on the program, and that "what we did was fully authorized under the law."
"The disclosure of this program is disgraceful," he said. "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."
The ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee said Monday that she and many of her colleagues on the panel were briefed on the program by Treasury Department officials only after the administration learned it would be exposed in the press.
Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice) said that she did not learn about the transaction-monitoring program until last month, even though it had been in operation since shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"They knew it was going to leak," Harman said. Because the program was hidden from most members of the committee for more than four years, she said, she had "significant concerns" about the lack of oversight.
Harman noted that the committee chairman, Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), had been informed of the operation before the full committee briefing. A spokesman said Hoekstra was told of the program shortly after he became chairman in 2004. Harman said she did not know why she had not also gotten an earlier briefing.
The Treasury Department, which runs the program, had briefed ranking members of the Senate Intelligence Committee periodically since shortly after the program was launched, according to a senior Senate aide. It had not briefed the full panel until last month, said the aide, who would not be quoted by name when discussing sensitive committee matters.
In his remarks Monday, Bush said the program was consistent with tactics endorsed by the bipartisan commission that studied the government's failures before and after the Sept. 11 attacks.
"The 9/11 commission recommended that the government be robust in tracing money," he said. "If you want to figure out what the terrorists are doing, you try to follow their money. And that's exactly what we're doing. And the fact that a newspaper disclosed it makes it harder to win this war on terror."
According to the newspapers' reports, the program obtains information from the world's biggest financial communication network to monitor international bank transfers. That network is operated by the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, or SWIFT, and carries up to 12.7 million messages a day that typically include names and account numbers of bank customers.
The U.S. government obtained the information using administrative subpoenas, which are not subject to independent reviews that check for abuse.
On Sunday, Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, called for criminal prosecution of the New York Times.