WASHINGTON - Facing growing criticism from civil liberties groups, Attorney General John Ashcroft kicked off an unusual multicity campaign yesterday meant to defend the USA Patriot Act, telling an audience at a conservative think tank that the legislation has played a major role in preventing terrorist attacks on the United States.
"We have used these tools to prevent terrorists from unleashing more death and destruction on our soil," Ashcroft said at the American Enterprise Institute. "If we knew then what we know now, we would have passed the Patriot Act six months before September 11th rather than six weeks after the attacks."
The campaign, which will take Ashcroft and his message to more than a dozen cities across the country over the next several weeks, is meant to counter an increasingly well-organized group of civil liberties organizations arguing against the law.
The Bush administration is also facing criticism from several conservative groups that traditionally form its base but which have expressed growing concern that the act violates Americans' privacy and gives law enforcement agencies too much power to conduct secret surveillance.
In his speech yesterday, Ashcroft highlighted several provisions of the act that he said have made a significant contribution to fighting terrorism, including the ability to continue to eavesdrop on suspects even if they switch cell phone numbers. Before the act, he said, investigators were forced to get a new warrant for every new phone number.
Ashcroft said the law has given police and prosecutors new tools to help them communicate with each other and "connect the dots." A recent opinion poll, he said, reflects that a 2-to-1 majority of Americans believes that the Patriot Act "is a necessary and effective tool."
"We have built a new ethos of justice," Ashcroft said. "All of this has been done within the safeguards of our Constitution and its guarantees of protection for American freedom."
Ashcroft did not address some of the act's more-controversial provisions, such as whether law enforcement officers can secretly obtain a suspect's library records. Justice officials contended yesterday that investigators must first obtain a warrant.
The act, passed by an overwhelming majority in Congress in the wake of the 2001 attacks, allows broader surveillance and searches of suspects, and knocks down a figurative "wall" between investigations of terrorism and those of criminal acts. The law has become the focal point of the Bush administration's policies against terrorism.
Lately, though, it has become somewhat of a liability, as Bush heads into an election year and the criticism has grown louder. This summer, a handful of senators, including two Republicans, introduced three pieces of legislation that would roll back some of the act's provisions or increase judicial and congressional oversight.
Meanwhile, more than 150 communities across the country have passed local resolutions objecting to the act or some of its provisions. Democrats running for president have begun to use the Patriot Act to criticize Bush on civil liberties issues.
Ashcroft aides deny that the tour is politically motivated, saying its purpose is to "talk to the American people" and "engage in the debate." However, Ashcroft's speeches will be open only to law enforcement personnel.
Justice Department spokeswoman Barbara Comstock said the meetings were closed to the public so that Ashcroft could show law enforcement agencies that "we support their efforts." She said Ashcroft has instructed U.S. attorneys across the country to conduct town hall meetings about the Patriot Act over the next few weeks and answer questions from the public.
U.S. attorneys "can explain best to their constituencies how they are using" the legislation, she said.
It was unclear yesterday whether the U.S. attorney for Maryland, Thomas M. DiBiagio, plans to schedule such a meeting.
Laura W. Murphy, director of the Washington legislative office for the American Civil Liberties Union, criticized the decision yesterday, saying that Ashcroft was trying to "squelch protests" that would accompany his visits.
"An attorney general going on the road, away from his official duties, to favorably spin policies is troubling to say the least," Murphy said. "It raises two questions: Is this tour - which incidentally hits Iowa, Michigan and Ohio - political in nature, and how prudent is it to be spending public money on a Patriot Act charm offensive?"
Justice Department officials said the states the attorney general will visit were chosen based on Ashcroft's schedule and the availability of state officials. They said the tour schedule does not reflect an effort to visit states or cities where Bush could be vulnerable in the 2004 election.
Ashcroft will travel to Philadelphia, Detroit, Cleveland and Des Moines, Iowa, in the next two days. In the last election, Bush narrowly won Ohio, and lost Iowa, Pennsylvania and Michigan by fewer than 5 percentage points. All four states are on a White House target list as "must-wins" to ensure his re-election.
Comstock and other Justice officials acknowledge that the increased volume of the criticism, namely from the ACLU, as well as the need to bolster some provisions of the Patriot Act that are up for renewal, played a role in deciding to put together the tour. They have also launched a Web site, www.lifeandliberty.gov, meant to explain the legislation and how it works.
Comstock said the department is confident that the Patriot Act is on solid ground and that any criticism of the law is overblown.
"We want our law enforcement officers to know we support the Patriot Act," she said, "and we're not going to back away from it."