WASHINGTON — The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday asked for a formal investigation into whether national security had been damaged by recent news reports unearthing details of two controversial Bush administration anti-terrorism programs.
"Numerous recent unauthorized disclosures of sensitive intelligence programs have directly threatened important efforts in the war against terrorism," Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) wrote in a letter to National Intelligence Director John D. Negroponte.
Roberts said he was particularly concerned with disclosures that the administration was monitoring phone calls and Internet traffic without a warrant and accessing an international database of bank transactions. "We have been unable to persuade the media to act responsibly and protect the means by which we protect this nation," he wrote.
The Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal were the first to report last week on the banking program in which the Treasury Department has acquired a vast database of personal financial information from a little-known Brussels-based industry cooperative to track possible terrorist activity.
The warrantless surveillance program run by the National Security Agency was disclosed by the New York Times in December and has generated concern because it involves the tracking of international communications where one of the parties involved was in the United States.
Administration officials have confirmed the existence of both programs but have said the media disclosures have aided terrorist groups. President Bush and Vice President Cheney have criticized the revelations as disgraceful.
In an op-ed article Tuesday, Los Angeles Times Editor Dean Baquet wrote that the newspaper "very seriously" weighed the national security concerns, but decided to publish because "there is an intense and ongoing public debate about whether surveillance programs like these pose a serious threat to civil liberties."
Roberts has proposed tougher criminal penalties on those who disclose classified information. But the Kansas Republican -- who worked as a reporter and editor for several Arizona newspapers after serving in the Marine Corps -- said Tuesday that he did not think journalists should be prosecuted for publishing the information.
The administration indicated in a recent court case that journalists could be prosecuted for publishing classified information under espionage laws.
Negroponte's office said in a prepared statement that Roberts' request was being "reviewed."
"The Intelligence community takes extremely seriously any unauthorized disclosure of classified information," the statement said.
Negroponte has previously condemned such disclosures. He said in a speech in April that "any public disclosure of intelligence-related information is going to hurt us in one way or another."
The harm such revelations pose, he said, includes disclosing sources and methods of intelligence-gathering, and "prejudicing ... very important liaison relationships that we have with other intelligence services around the world."