TOPICS > Nation

President Bush Condemns Media Leak on Banking Records

June 26, 2006 at 6:20 PM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: It was the lead story Friday in a number of major newspapers: a secret administration counterterrorism program to monitor financial records that flow through a large international, Belgium-based banking cooperative known as SWIFT.

Once the story was out, Treasury Secretary John Snow held a press conference to defend it and to criticize news organizations for publishing it, after the administration specifically asked the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post not to run it.

Today, the criticism continued, as the president responded to a question about the secret program with a blast at the press.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: Congress was briefed. And what we did was fully authorized under the law.

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.

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.

JEFFREY BROWN: For his part, New York Times editor Bill Keller responded to criticisms in a long letter on the paper’s Web site. He described “weeks of discussion between administration officials and the Times” over the story, and his conclusion that the Times had acted in “the public interest.”

“Nobody,” he writes, “should think that we made this decision casually, with any animus toward the current administration, or without fully weighing the issues.”

An arduous decision

JEFFREY BROWN: And we look at the story behind the news story now with Eric Lichtblau, New York Times reporter, and co-author of Friday's articles, as well as the Times' 2005 story about the National Security Agency's secret domestic wiretapping program.

And Representative Curt Weldon, a Republican from Pennsylvania, he's a senior member of both the Armed Services and Homeland Security Committees.

Eric Lichtblau, starting with you, the Times was specifically asked not to publish this article, and yet you did it. Why?

ERIC LICHTBLAU, Reporter, New York Times: Well, as Bill Keller, our editor, has indicated, we spent weeks and weeks -- and, in fact, a period of several months -- talking to the administration, listening to their arguments. And this is not a decision that the paper took lightly; it was made by the top editors of the paper.

And the feeling was that -- I think, at its core -- the fact that the government is very interested in tracking terrorist finances is no secret. President Bush and his top aides have made that point for the last 4 1/2 years.

In fact, it's so commonly known that we're interested in tracking terrorist finances that there have been numerous stories and numerous statements from congressional officials and administration officials about how the terrorists have now started moving their money outside financial institutions.

And I think it was felt that this was a story that contributed to the whole public debate and deserved a public airing.

JEFFREY BROWN: These meetings that you had with the administration, who asked for them, and how unusual is it for these to occur?

ERIC LICHTBLAU: It's fairly unusual. We were in the same situation, of course, before the story on the NSA. And, in both cases, there were requests from the administration not to publish a story once they learned that we were working on it.

And I think it's also worth pointing out that, once they heard that we were doing reporting on this story, they then expanded the number of congressional officials who were briefed. There were very limited briefings initially about this program. Once there was the fear of it becoming public, they then briefed full committees, only in response to our inquiries.

Security vs. public interest

JEFFREY BROWN: Congressman Weldon, the president calls the disclosure "disgraceful." One of your colleagues, Peter King, this weekend called it treasonous, going further. What do you call it?

REP. CURT WELDON (R), Pennsylvania: I call it very dangerous. We're in the midst of a major war against terrorism. And the way that we win this war is through good intelligence.

It doesn't matter how strong our military is in this battle. It's understanding where these terror cells are, how to deal with them, how to get at them.

No one in America has the right to release classified information. If I take what the New York Times has done, then all 535 members of Congress can on their own individually select what they want to release, because we're all given access to classified information.

As the vice chairman of both the Armed Services and Homeland Security committees, I'm given access to almost any level of intelligence I want. Do I then have the power and the authority to determine in my own mind what I would or would not release? That's not what my job is; I swore and took an oath not to do that.

And the people that these papers are dealing with took the same oath. I'm really outraged and incensed at both the paper, but also at these Americans who work for our system who, even though they took an oath, have selectively determined what they will declassify.

If a member of Congress did that, then that member of Congress would be subject to prosecution. No individual reporter and no individual citizen working for the CIA, or DIA, or any other agency has the right to violate the protection for the American people that we swore to uphold and protect and provide.


Mr. Lichtblau, what gives you the right? Explain it.

ERIC LICHTBLAU: Well, I think the press, obviously, has a fundamental role as a watch dog over government, and, you know, that's deeply embedded in our Constitution.

And it's not a responsibility that the paper takes lightly. There are numerous instances in which the paper keeps things out of the newspaper for reasons of national security. That's done, I'd say, on a regular basis.

This was not a case where the editors felt, in the end, that was necessary. And they thought that this was a decision, again, a story worth airing. And I'd also point out that other newspapers came to that same decision, including the L.A. Times and the Wall Street Journal.

JEFFREY BROWN: Congressman Weldon, would you suggest that, as soon as the administration asks that a story not be published, that's the end of it, that everyone should abide by that?

REP. CURT WELDON: Well, you know, we have a process in America where people are elected to represent constituents. And we in the Congress then elect people who are on separate committees involving our intelligence.

And these members take an extra oath, both in the Senate and the House. There are Democrats and Republicans who are briefed at the highest level of the secrets that are important to America's security; that also includes the leadership of both bodies.

No individual reporter has the right to supersede what is given to those individuals who protect the secrets of America, and yet that's what reporters of the New York Times have done.

It wasn't too long ago they ran a story depicting the body of an American soldier on the front page of the paper showing the vulnerable areas where a terrorist could hit him. That led directly to increased shots against our troops because of the vulnerability showed by the New York Times, even though our generals in theater had asked the Times not to run that story and not to run that depiction.

You know, we've got a fundamental problem here. Selective leaks are now occurring by people who have taken an oath not to provide leaks. And now these selective leaks are being used by media outlets.

Again, I would go back to, does this now mean that all 535 members of Congress can pick or choose what they want to leak because they perhaps think that's more important to the American people than what our White House does? I think not.

And I think we're in very dangerous territory, and I think these newspapers have gone well over the line, in terms of what a free press is supposed to be doing, to keep our nation strong.

Revealing nervous concerns

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Mr. Lichtblau, tell us about the leaks. Explain to us how these stories occur. How do they come to you? And what are the motivations of the people, do you think, that the people that are contacting you?

ERIC LICHTBLAU: Well, I'm obviously not going to get into details about the sources of the story, particularly when their leak investigations are under way in a number of other areas.

And the one thing I can say we said in the story that we did last Friday was that there was concern among some of the nearly 20 people that we talked to that what had started out as a temporary emergency response to 9/11 had become permanent, now nearly five years after 9/11, without really specific congressional authorization, without even knowledge by most members of Congress or the relevant committees, and that we are now in a semi-permanent emergency state.

This was, you know, obviously a public policy issue that seemed, again, worth a public airing. And this was not a concern just shared by the New York Times. We didn't create the nervousness here.

There was nervousness by SWIFT itself, the consortium in Belgium, which, as we pointed out in the story, threatened to pull out of this program in 2003 and stayed on only after very high-level meetings with Alan Greenspan and with Bob Mueller at the FBI, because the company itself was asking how long what was seen as an emergency program would be allowed to continue. So I think it's in that context.

REP. CURT WELDON: This is outrageous.

JEFFREY BROWN: Go ahead, Mr. Weldon. How...

REP. CURT WELDON: This is outrageous! The New York Times, a profit-making entity, designed to improve their bottom line to make a profit, has decided that they can supersede members of Congress from both parties who are briefed on these important programs for our national security.

So the New York Times has decided they know more than Nancy Pelosi, or they know more than Carl Levin, or they know more than Pete Hoekstra. They've decided that they know best, in terms of what should be questioned...

JEFFREY BROWN: But, Mr. Weldon...

REP. CURT WELDON: ... a profit-making entity. That is absolutely outrageous.

Smoldering tensions grow

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Weldon, though, what about the First Amendment, the role of the press, as a separate body that has a role in disseminating information? And what Mr. Lichtblau was talking about, if there are concerns out there, if there is discomfort with the program by people, what other way do they have of getting that out, other than talking to a reporter?

REP. CURT WELDON: Well, first of all, people who have top-secret security clearances take an oath not to reveal the information they're working on. Many of these people have partisan agendas, as we saw with Mary McCarthy, who openly contributed to one party as she was leaking information to the Washington Post. That's not the job of intelligence analysts.

And when the media encourages that kind of activity, then, in fact, they're causing an undermining of the very intelligence that this country is relying on to deal with these terrorist cells. And it takes away our ability to provide that protection that the American people need.

If members of Congress who are briefed and who are elected by the people determine that an administration has overstepped its bounds, then we have the ability and we have in a process to bring it back under control.

If the New York Times really wanted to do that, then they would have gone to members of Congress and said, "What are you going to do about this?" instead of broadcasting it all over the world. They didn't do that.

They chose the profit motive, to continue to make the profit that drives the bottom line of these newspapers. And that's outrageous.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Lichtblau, I'll give you one last response here. Do you see -- you've been involved in several of these. Do you see a growing tension here between the media, or part of it, and this administration?

ERIC LICHTBLAU: Well, I think there is, certainly, a growing tension, and that goes beyond, you know, the couple of stories that I've worked on. I mean, this is something we're seeing played out on a daily and weekly basis, with clashes between the media and the administration.

And, you know, there's a raging public debate, I think, between national security and the public's right to know, and oftentimes those interests conflict.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Eric Lichtblau and Congressman Curt Weldon, thank you both very much.


REP. CURT WELDON: Thank you.