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Ashcroft visit sparks protest

Standing at the dais in Faneuil Hall, speaking in front of a teleprompter, US Attorney General John Ashcroft referenced the historic debates that took place in the room and said he was honored "to talk about freedom in a setting like this."

But as he launched into a speech promoting the USA Patriot Act, the Bush administration's sweeping counterterrorism law, Ashcroft never acknowledged the constant noise that crept in from outside: the muffled din of protesters chanting and banging drums.

It has become a common response on the multicity tour Ashcroft launched last month to promote the Patriot Act in the face of increasing public complaints. Critics say that the act, passed within weeks of September 11, 2001, is a dangerous encroachment on a range of civil liberties. The Justice Department says it is an indispensable tool in preventing further terrorist attacks.

The hastily organized crowd outside had grown to several hundred by the time Ashcroft arrived just after 9. Many protesters said they had learned about his appearance from websites such as Harvard Bookstore had sent an e-mail to patrons, urging them to demonstrate. One trio of coworkers from a mutual fund company glimpsed the protest from their 12th story window and decided to take part. "It's important to come out and use the civil liberties we have left," said Celine Suarez, 24, an environmental analyst.

Some demonstrators held signs for antiwar Democratic presidential candidates Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich. Others were lawyers or librarians who said they were concerned about specific provisions of the act. And many focused considerable venom on Ashcroft, viewed as a powerful figure within the Bush Administration. Laura Pawle, 46, a real estate lawyer from Cambridge, held a sign that said, "Ashcroft: More evil than Steinbrenner."

It was a far cry from the mood inside the hall, where a subdued crowd of about 200 was sparse enough to leave many chairs empty. The Justice Department had invited public safety and health officials, private citizens who had taken part in department working groups, and many law enforcment officers, from small-town police chiefs to leaders of the Massachusetts National Guard.

The guests, many of them in uniform, filed in quietly past protesters' shouts, and sat hushed as they awaited Ashcroft's arrival through a side entrance. When Governor Mitt Romney introduced Ashcroft as "a man who stands for something, who battles for his country," the room broke into long applause.

In the speech, Ashcroft said the Patriot Act allows law enforcement agencies to share more information, updates federal statutes to account for new technologies, and uses many tactics long employed against organized crime. And he said the law was "always rooted in the Constitution and the liberties protected in that great document."

But he did not address some specific questions detractors have raised about the law: whether it provides adequate access to lawyers and protection of Constitutional rights, and whether it would allow the government to intrude too much into individuals' lives, even examining people's library records without their consent.

The law seems unnecessarily sweeping, said US Representative Michael Capuano, who voted against the act in 2001. Though he had an invitation to go in the hall, Capuano stayed outside with the protesters. "If it was a dialogue," he said, "I might have gone."

Some supporters of the law seemed interested in dialogue, too, saying they hoped to dispel what they see as misperceptions.

"To the extent that we can ask people first to read the act, I welcome the debate. I really do," said Michael Ricciuti, antiterrorism coordinator at the US Attorney's Office in Boston, who said the law is vital to his work.

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