WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Vice President Dick Cheney said a secret program allowing U.S. officials to examine thousands of private banking records around the world was a legal and "absolutely essential" weapon in the war on terror, the New York Times reported on Saturday.

Speaking at a fund-raiser for Republican congressional candidates in Chicago on Friday, Cheney criticized the media for disclosing the program, which is run by the CIA in conjunction with the Treasury Department.

For nearly five years since the September 11 attacks, the Treasury Department has been tapping into records of the Brussels-based Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications, or SWIFT, for evidence of potential activity by terror groups.

The records examined mostly involve wire transfers and other methods of moving money overseas or into and out of the United States.

Cheney said the Bush administration knew it would likely be criticized for the program -- as it was for the warrant-less eavesdropping of phone calls -- but said it was necessary.

"They are conducted in accordance with the laws of the land," Cheney was quoted as saying in The New York Times. "They're carried out in a manner that is fully consistent with the constitutional authority of the president of the United States. They are absolutely essential in terms of protecting us against attacks."

The Times first reported on the financial tracking program this week in a story that Cheney said hampers U.S. security efforts.

"What I find most disturbing about these stories is the fact that some of the news media take it upon themselves to disclose vital national security programs, thereby making it more difficult for us to prevent future attacks against the American people," he said. "That offends me