WASHINGTON -- President Bush criticized newspapers yesterday for disclosing a secret U.S. government program monitoring international banking transactions, calling the disclosures a "disgraceful" act that could assist terrorists.
Bush, speaking during a White House meeting with organizations that support the war in Iraq, echoed comments Friday by Vice President Dick Cheney and conservative commentators, who 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 them.
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 yesterday 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.
"What we were doing was the right thing. Congress was aware of it, and we were within the law to do so."
Rep. Jane Harman, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee said yesterday that she and many of her colleagues on the committee were briefed on the program by Treasury Department officials only after the administration learned that it would be exposed in the media.
Harman, a California Democrat, said she did not learn about the transaction-monitoring program until last month. It has been in operation since shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"They knew it was going to leak," Harman said.
Harman said the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Peter Hoekstra, a Michigan Republican, was informed of the operation before the full committee briefing.
A Hoekstra spokesman said the Michigan lawmaker was briefed on the program shortly after he became chairman in 2004. Harman said she did not know why she had not also been given an earlier briefing
The Treasury Department began briefing ranking members of the Senate intelligence committee periodically shortly after the program began but did not brief the full panel until last month, said a senior Senate aide who asked not to be identified when discussing sensitive committee matters.
According to the newspapers' reports, the program, run by the Treasury Department, obtains information from the world's biggest financial communication network to monitor international bank transfers. That network 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.
Peter Wallsten and Greg Miller write for the Los Angeles Times.