Vice President Dick Cheney says a secret government program that searches private bank records is "absolutely essential" in the fight against terrorism.
Three major U.S. newspapers - The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal - revealed Thursday that the Treasury Department has been gathering records from the Belgium-based consortium SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication), which handles millions of global financial transactions a day.
Cheney and other Bush administration strongly defended the program Friday. The vice president lashed out at the disclosure of the program, saying it would make it more difficult to prevent future terrorist attacks against Americans.
Many Democratic lawmakers and civil liberties groups say the program is another example of the Bush administration's abuse of its constitutional authority. Some compared it to the controversial program that monitors phone calls and e-mails without court approval.
U.S. Treasury Secretary John Snow says the program has proved effective in tracking down terrorists, but also has safeguards to protect ordinary Americans.
The New York Times and Los Angeles Times said the Bush administration asked them not to reveal the program for security reasons. But the newspapers say they went ahead after deciding it was in the public interest to expose the extraordinary reach of the program.
SWIFT officials say they have negotiated with the government to limit the scope of the information and to protect their customers.
Some information for this report was provided by AFP and AP.