Lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives have engaged in a passionate debate on press freedom, sparked by revelations published in the New York Times and other newspapers about a U.S. government program that monitors international bank transfers.
Authored by majority Republicans over the objections of opposition Democrats, the resolution declares that unauthorized disclosure of classified information may endanger American lives by revealing the methods the government uses to trace terrorists through financial transactions.
It goes on to say that the House expects news media organization to cooperate in protecting the lives of Americans and the capability of the government to identify, disrupt and capture terrorists by not disclosing intelligence programs.
Reports on the methods used in the government's Terrorist Finance Tracking Program appeared in the New York Times, along with similar reports in the Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times among others.
Although the resolution mentions no newspaper by name, impassioned debate focused on the New York Times, with Republicans such as Rick Renzi of Arizona accusing the paper of damaging national security. "The New York Times in the business of leaking is beginning to have a cumulative effect. By their own account, they have leaked the government's most closely regarded secrets. They said that it [government anti-terror program] has only led to a few potential terrorists. A few potential terrorists did damage to this country on September 11th. A few terrorists can help take down and destroy this nation and wound this nation," he said.
Democrats responded by accusing Republicans of staging the debate for political reasons, while aiming their criticisms at other Bush administration anti-terror efforts such as the previously-secret program to monitor telephone conversations of suspected terrorists.
Congresswoman Jane Harman (D-California)says said while the Republican resolution raised some legitimate issues involving threats to security from leaks of classified information, attacks on the media would eventually erode freedom of the press. If anyone wants to live in a society where journalists are thrown in prison, I encourage them to move to Cuba, China or North Korea to see if they feel safer. This resolution asks Congress to give the administration another blank check. It is unworthy," she said.
In criticizing newspaper reports on the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program, President Bush earlier this week said members of Congress had been fully briefed on the program, saying the program fully confirmed with the law.
The New York Times and other newspapers have defended their decision to publish reports on the bank transaction monitoring program, saying they did so in the public's interest.
Democrats opposing Thursday's Republican resolution, which passed on a largely party line vote, said only a few members of Congress were briefed, and questioned language in the measure claiming Congress has conducted adequate oversight of the program.