WASHINGTON -- The chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee called yesterday for criminal prosecution of The New York Times, saying that 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, a New York Republican, accused the newspaper of compromising national security when it exposed a Treasury Department program that attempts to track terrorist financing by secretly monitoring worldwide money transfers. The program, instituted after the Sept. 11 attacks, bypasses safeguards put in place to ensure 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. "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 Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales to begin a criminal investigation of the newspaper.
The Bush administration pressed The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times to refrain from publishing their reports, but editors at 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," Dean Baquet, editor of the Los Angeles Times, said yesterday. "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.
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 abuses.
"We have seen the newspapers in this country act as effective watchdogs," Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said on Fox News Sunday. "I don't think that the newspapers can have a totally free hand. But ... 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., a Delaware Democrat, said that while he would have preferred that 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 [don't] make sense as well."
Both senators noted 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 both newspapers, the program was part of an effort to gain intelligence data by tapping into bank transfers from the world's largest financial communications network. 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 an obscure power known as "administrative subpoenas," which are not subject to independent governmental reviews.
The program is part of the administration's broad expansion of intelligence-gathering methods, which includes warrantless surveillance in suspected terrorism cases of international phone calls and e-mail of U.S. residents. The New York Times first reported on that program, run by the National Security Agency, late last year.
Yesterday, Specter indicated that Congress and the White House were nearing agreement on a proposal to submit all such eavesdropping to a secretive federal court that considers intelligence matters. "We're getting close with the discussions ... 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, requires that requests to monitor communications in the United States be considered by the intelligence court.
Faye Fiore writes for the Los Angeles Times.