WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush on Monday denounced as "disgraceful" the revelation by the media of a secret U.S. program that tracks international financial records in pursuit of terrorists.
Vice President Dick Cheney also singled out The New York Times for criticism of its reporting on both bank-records searches and a separate anti-terror program involving warrantless eavesdropping on phone calls.
The U.S. Treasury Department since the Sept. 11 attacks has been examining data from a Brussels-based financial consortium for evidence of potential activity by terror groups.
Despite the government's efforts to keep the program quiet, The New York Times laid out the program in detail last week and other major U.S. newspapers also reported on it.
Bush said the financial-records monitoring was legal and an important tool for preventing terror attacks.
"Congress was briefed. And what we did was fully authorized under the law. And the disclosure of this program is disgraceful," Bush told reporters after a meeting with groups supporting the U.S. military in Iraq.
"What we were doing was the right thing. Congress was aware of it, and we were within the law to do so," he said. "If you want to figure out what the terrorists are doing, you try to follow their money. And that's exactly what we're doing."
The disclosure late last year of the warrantless eavesdropping program prompted lawmakers to raise privacy concerns and questions about whether the administration was overstepping its executive powers.
Some lawmakers have raised similar concerns about the bank-records program, but the criticism has been more muted.
Cheney, in remarks at a fundraiser in Nebraska, went further than Bush in lashing out at the news media -- in particular the New York Times -- over the revelations on both the financial monitoring and telephone eavesdropping programs.
"The New York Times has now twice -- two separate occasions -- disclosed programs; both times they had been asked not to publish those stories by senior administration officials," Cheney said. "They went ahead anyway."
Cheney expressed outrage that The New York Times had won a Pulitzer Prize for its reporting on the telephone surveillance program.
Under the bank program, the Treasury Department has subpoenaed data from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications, or SWIFT, which is owned and controlled by nearly 8,000 commercial banks in 20 countries.
Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican, has said the reporting on that program violated the law and urged the Justice Department to investigate The New York Times.
In a letter to readers over the weekend, The New York Times editor Bill Keller stood by the newspaper's decision to publish the story. He said the newspaper went ahead with it after listening "patiently and attentively" to the administration's argument not to report on the program.
"It's not our job to pass judgment on whether this program is legal or effective, but the story cites strong arguments from proponents that this is the case," Keller said.
Commenting on the program, Treasury Department spokesman Tony Fratto said: "We wanted to make sure it was clear to our partners (in the global war on terror) that we see great value in this program, that we have taken our responsibility to deal with the information that we obtain seriously and with a high degree of responsibility."