WASHINGTON - An angry President Bush administered a public tongue-lashing to Congress yesterday, saying disclosure by lawmakers of sensitive intelligence to the press could imperil American military personnel.
"I want Congress to hear loud and clear, it is unacceptable behavior to leak classified information when we have troops at risk," Bush told reporters in a Rose Garden appearance with visiting German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.
The president's unusually stern remarks came in response to questions about his internal memo to the directors of the CIA and FBI as well as key Cabinet secretaries, ordering them to cut off all but eight members of Congress from classified intelligence information.
Bush directed those officials to limit classified information to party leaders in the House and Senate and the chairman and ranking minority member of each chamber's intelligence committee.
As for complaints from lawmakers, he said:
"I understand there may be some heartburn on Capitol Hill. I suggest if they want to relieve that heartburn, that they take their positions very seriously, that they take any information they've been given by our government very seriously. Because this is serious business we're talking about."
Seeming to grow more angry as he spoke, the president said, "When those leaks occurred, by the way, it was right before we committed troops. And I knew full well that was about to happen."
A senior administration official said Bush was furious that information from an CIA briefing Oct. 2 of the Senate Intelligence committee appeared in the press. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, refused to say which lawmakers, what information, or what news reports had angered Bush.
But an article in Friday's Washington Post - the day Bush fired off his memo - cited "sources familiar with" that briefing. The article said that intelligence officials had told members of Congress of the high likelihood that terrorists associated with Osama bin Laden would soon try to launch another major attack on American targets.
"In response to a senator's question about the gravity of the threat," the article said, "one intelligence official said there is a '100 percent' chance of an attack should the United States strike Afghanistan."
An aide said that "a couple instances" of leaks had upset the president.
Reaction among lawmakers to the new policy was mixed.
Several said they appreciated his concerns, but that tightening the circle of members in the know to only eight people could hinder the ability of the legislative branch to fulfill its duties at a time when the nation is on a war footing.
"We have to have classified briefings if we are going to do our oversight role," said Sen. Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee and would be left out of intelligence briefings as long as Bush's new policy remains in effect.
Kansas Republican Pat Roberts, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he understands the president's concerns, but warned, "There are going to be people who will say they won't vote to provide any money unless they are told what it is going for."
Don Nickles, the Senate Republican whip, said the limit on the number of lawmakers briefed "sounds too tight to me." But he called the leaks "grossly irresponsible."
Others did not seem disturbed at all by Bush's new policy.
"My philosophy is, the fewer people who know about some of these things, the better off we are," said Rep. Bob Stump, an Arizona Republican who chairs the Armed Services Committee. "I firmly believe in the need to know. Many times, there really is no need to know."
The president's memo, followed by his open rebuke of Congress, has the potential to create an untimely rift between the White House and Capitol Hill as U.S. forces are halfway around the world on a military mission to combat terrorism.
By late yesterday, the White House appeared to be backing down slightly. The president's spokesman, Ari Fleischer, said Bush would be meeting with congressional leaders this morning and was open to finding a method for both preventing leaks and keeping lawmakers informed.
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Delaware Democrat who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee, said Bush told him in a meeting yesterday afternoon - after the Rose Garden remarks - that he might be willing to permit a broader dissemination of classified information.
"I think this is going to settle down a little bit," Biden said. "There should be no doubt that the appropriate people within the Congress who need to know, including the committees in question - Armed Services, Foreign Relations, Intelligence - they will all be briefed."
Biden said Bush "understood fully a memo did not trump the law," which Biden said requires that some panels receive frequent updates on classified intelligence gathering by federal agencies.
"He was angry about the leaks," Biden said of Bush. "What you saw is a legitimate frustration on the part of the president."
Bush addressed his memo to the secretaries of State, Treasury and Defense, the attorney general, and the directors of FBI and CIA. In it, he said his new approach to briefing was important to "protecting American lives." He wrote that his policy would apply both to sensitive military intelligence and to information on continuing the terrorism investigations.
Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott agreed that members of Congress have "a responsibility to keep classified information," but he added that Congress "has a right to be briefed on what is happening."
Antony Blinken, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and member of President Bill Clinton's National Security Council staff, said he fully understands the president's desire to curtail the release of classified information at a time when lives are at risk. But he said that denying intelligence to committees with military or foreign policy responsibilities would be an overreaction.
"Members of the intelligence committees have a strong stake in being up to date," he said. "It is going to be awkward for them."
In explaining the president's policy yesterday, Fleischer said that "in a time of war, the usual rules do not apply."
In addition to limiting intelligence briefings, the White House continued to take another precaution yesterday. For the third day in a row, Fleischer said, Vice President Dick Cheney did not report to the White House.
He remained instead at a secure undisclosed location to ensure that, in the event of further terrorist attacks, he and Bush would not be in the same place.