By Rachel Clarke
BBC News Online in Washington
US Attorney General John Ashcroft has begun a national tour to defend and promote the controversial Patriot Act.
He is scheduled to make speeches before select audiences of law enforcement officers to argue the merits of the new anti-terrorist powers approved by Congress in the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States.
Mr Ashcroft cited Lincoln and Churchill in his argument
The legislation had overwhelming backing from politicians when it was introduced just six weeks after thousands of people were killed in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.
But growing opposition to the Patriot Act has now become a political issue, with legal challenges being made to what are seen by some as measures that impinge on people's civil liberties and rights.
The administration seems keen to tackle the issue before President Bush goes up for re-election next year in a campaign that will feature the war on terror heavily.
In addition to the attorney general's tour, it has launched a "Preserving life and liberty" website highlighting what it sees as the Patriot Act's key role in protecting innocent Americans.
'We are safer'
Mr Ashcroft began his campaign with a strong speech in Washington, insisting that the law was not only constitutional but an effective and necessary tool in the fight against terrorism, which he called "the cause of our time".
He said the Patriot Act was already addressing many of the key failures identified by a lengthy Congressional investigation into the events which allowed the 11 September attacks to be planned and executed without US agencies being able to "connect the dots" from the various clues they had.
Going back on the Patriot Act now would "senselessly imperil American lives and American liberty, and ignore the lessons of 11 September," he said.
"The cause we have chosen is just. The course we have chosen is constitutional. The course we have chosen is preserving lives," he said.
"For two years Americans have been safe. Because we are safer, our liberties are more secure."
Mr Ashcroft quoted at length from Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address made during the US Civil War on how to honour the dead. He also quoted Sir Winston Churchill, Britain's World War II leader who asked Americans to give the UK the tools to overcome Adolf Hitler and Nazism.
Mr Ashcroft told an audience at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington: "While our job is not finished, we have used the tools provided in the Patriot Act to fulfil our first responsibility to protect the American people.
"We have used these tools to prevent terrorists from unleashing more death and destruction on our soil.
"We have used these tools to save innocent American lives. We have used these tools to provide the security that ensures liberty."
Mr Ashcroft highlighted support for the Patriot Act given earlier by members of Congress and the website lists quotations from members of both parties supporting the legislation, almost wholly dating back to October 2001 when it was introduced.
But since then dozens of cities and counties across the country have approved resolutions criticising the Patriot Act and various lawsuits have been brought to declare it unconstitutional.
Even the Republican-led House of Representatives has become involved in recent weeks, striking down "sneak-and-peek" rules which allowed government agents to search private property without telling the owner.
Other controversial areas - such as agents being allowed to scrutinise people's library records without showing what crime they believe could be being committed - still stand despite challenges.
Mr Ashcroft's tour to garner support for the Patriot Act is being likened to a political campaign trip. His stops will include cities in Iowa, Michigan and Ohio which could be crucial to President Bush's re-election campaign next year.
Laura Murphy, director of the Washington legislative office of the American Civil Liberties Union, questioned the merits of spending public money on what amounted to a "charm offensive" for the legislation.
But she welcomed the attention now being focused on the Patriot Act by so many different parts of society.
"Of course Americans want to be safe, but they also want - and deserve - to be free," she said.