ANCHORAGE - U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft defended the USA Patriot Act during a visit to Anchorage Monday, while dozens of demonstrators outside waved signs criticizing the anti-terrorism law and Ashcroft.
The Patriot Act has been "misconstrued," said Ashcroft, a former Republican senator and governor from Missouri who became attorney general in 2001. The act consolidates other laws long on the books that deal with drug dealers and other suspects of serious crimes, he said.
The law, passed by Congress shortly after the 2001 terrorist attacks, broadens government powers of surveillance and investigative methods.
"It's simply a way of extending a robust set of tools available in other settings to fight terrorism," Ashcroft said at a press conference at the Captain Cook Hotel.
Ashcroft was in Alaska to meet with members of the state's anti-terrorist task force and U.S. Attorney Timothy Burgess as part of his swing through Western states. Next stop was Seattle. Ashcroft has met with 40 of the 93 task forces set up nationwide since the terrorist attacks.
The nation is currently at a low terrorism alert level. The only recent development in Alaska has been the appearance of a Coast Guard boat at the Port of Anchorage earlier this month. Rear Adm. James Underwood, commander of the 17th Coast Guard District, said the boat's presence is in response to the general threat of terrorism, not to any specific event.
Ashcroft praised cooperation by law enforcement and justice officials in the fight against terrorism.
He listed efforts that have led to the death or capture of more than half the al-Qaida leadership worldwide. In the United States, hundreds of suspected terrorists have been identified and tracked and many have been arrested and detained as potential terrorist threats.
Protecting American soil would be difficult, if not impossible, without the Patriot Act, Ashcroft said.
"Using these tools secures the liberty of our citizens," he said. "Using these tools can save innocent lives."
As far as the Anchorage demonstrators were concerned, the Patriot Act is destructive to civil rights.
Many among the 50 protesters standing outside the downtown hotel made their sentiments clear with signs stating: "Ashcroft is watching you;" Dear John, you've killed the American dream!;" "We'd be more secure without you!" and "Who's next? Whom should we fear? Our government, or its targets?"
Kate McClellan, with Alaskans for Peace and Justice, helped organize the gathering.
"We're here to show support to the many Alaskans who want to repeal or modify the Patriot Act, which is an assault on our civil liberties," she said.
Some local governments in Alaska - including Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau and Kenai - have questioned the Patriot Act. In May, Alaska's Republican-dominated Legislature voted nearly unanimously to oppose it.
Nationwide, more than 150 state and local governments have adopted resolutions criticizing the act.
As protesters began to gather outside the Captain Cook Monday morning, Ashcroft held separate meetings with the task force and with Alaska-based Justice Department staffers, including the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Marshals Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
"He spent a good amount of time sharing his thoughts and thanking people for working together," Burgess said. "It was pretty positive, more a team-building thing."