By MIKE McINTIRE
'Standing on the site where Congress adopted the Bill of Rights, Attorney General John Ashcroft brought his defense of the Patriot Act to the edge of ground zero yesterday and suggested that critics of the act, a sweeping antiterrorism law, "have forgotten how we felt" on Sept. 11, 2001.
By choosing history-laden Federal Hall in Lower Manhattan as the backdrop to the latest stop in a cross-country round of speeches in support of the Patriot Act, Mr. Ashcroft invited attention to a sharp debate over whether some aspects of the law conflict with constitutional safeguards for individual liberties.
The attorney general made clear that he believes the Justice Department's antiterrorism initiatives are fully in sync with the moral imperatives of God and country — and that those who disagree may have failed to absorb the lessons of Sept. 11.
"Just two years have passed," Mr. Ashcroft said, "but already it has become difficult for some Americans to recall the shock, anger, grief and anguish of that day."
Referring to expanded abilities of antiterrorism investigators to conduct wiretaps, delay notification of a search warrant and share intelligence among agencies, he said that rolling back the use of such tools "will increase the risk that more Americans will die."
Mr. Ashcroft's impassioned appeals reflect concerns in the Justice Department about a growing bipartisan wariness in Congress about aspects of the law that some believe infringe on civil liberties. Yet the attorney general has made little effort to engage skeptics directly, sticking instead to a circuit of invitation-only speeches to law enforcement personnel.
Yesterday was no exception.
Under heavy security, Mr. Ashcroft addressed a muted audience of dark-suited prosecutors and other officials occupying a semicircle of folding chairs in the rotunda, while behind him on a stage sat about two dozen uniformed police officers. A large blue backdrop lined with American flags was erected against the towering columns, temporarily masking a display illustrating the history of the site.
Spectators were banned from the rotunda balcony, whose ornate iron railing features about 50 figures of a topless woman gazing down on the proceedings below (Mr. Ashcroft famously had a half-naked statue of the Spirit of Justice covered up in his building, but the Greek Revival maidens in Federal Hall appear to have escaped notice.)
Mr. Ashcroft took no questions, and outside on the street several hundred protesters were kept out of earshot on the far side of the building, where some chanted, "Stop Ashcroft! Defend the Constitution!" and waved placards that read: "Ashcroft Go Home. Leave Our Civil Liberties Alone."
Supporters of the Patriot Act argued that the fears of civil liberties advocates were overblown. Roslynn R. Mauskopf, the United States attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said that despite the exclusive nature of the attorney general's audience, "the message goes far beyond the people in the hall."
"The critics need to stop talking and start listening," she said. "The Patriot Act provides invaluable tools for fighting terrorism."'