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Bush Administration Clashes With Newspaper Over Anti-Terror Program


President Bush's choice to be the next Treasury secretary, Henry Paulson, promised the Senate Tuesday that he will review a previously secret program to track terrorists through an international banking database. The New York Times newspaper first revealed the program last week, prompting a barrage of criticism from President Bush and other administration officials.

Treasury nominee Paulson told the Senate Finance Committee that, if confirmed, he will make sure the once-secret program to track suspected terrorists through a vast international banking database balances security and privacy.

The New York Times first reported on the program last week, followed by other U.S. newspapers.

Revelations about the program sparked angry criticism from several officials in the Bush administration, beginning with the president himself. "Congress was briefed and what we did was fully authorized under the law and the disclosure of this program is disgraceful. We are 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," he said.

Under the program, the Bush administration was allowed to look for terrorist links by tapping into the records of an international banking cooperative that handles millions of messages each day from thousands of financial institutions around the world.

New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller issued an email statement saying the decision to publish the story about the secret program was, in his words, a hard call, but that it was in the public's interest to go ahead.

Some conservatives have condemned the Times for the story, including this caller on the public affairs network CSPAN, who confronted New York Times reporter Eric Lichtblau.

CALLER: "He should be sitting in jail right now awaiting trial for treason. This was uncalled for."

LICHTBLAU: "It was decided that there was a compelling public interest. You know, we have had a fast and furious debate the last six months or so over the NSA [National Security Agency domestic surveillance] program and this delicate balance between national security and privacy and civil liberties."

Some Republicans are calling for an investigation by the Justice Department to see if the Times violated espionage laws by publishing the story. "And to me their conduct was absolutely disgraceful and it is criminal and they should be prosecuted," said Republican congressman Peter King of New York, who spoke on Fox television.

President Bush says some members of Congress were informed about the banking surveillance program.

So far, opposition Democrats have said little about the issue.

Democratic Senator Max Baucus of Montana complained that the administration did not brief the Senate Finance Committee on the terror-tracking program.

Another Democrat, Congressman Ed Markey of Massachusetts, says the administration has adopted what he calls a shoot the messenger strategy by focusing criticism on The New York Times.

The Times also came in for criticism from the administration last year for reporting on the domestic surveillance efforts of the National Security Agency to monitor international phone calls without court warrants.

The Times was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for its reporting on that story, one of the highest honors in American journalism.