WASHINGTON, Aug. 21 — Attorney General John Ashcroft faced sharp criticism today from Democrats and others over his decision to give more than a dozen speeches around the country in defense of anti-terrorism legislation passed after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Representative John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, told Mr. Ashcroft in a letter that he should either "desist from further speaking engagements" or explain why they do not violate restrictions on political activities by government officials.
Mr. Conyers said that the speeches in defense of the USA Patriot Act, as the antiterrorism law is known, appeared to conflict with Congressional restrictions preventing the use of Justice Department money for "publicity or propaganda purposes not authorized by Congress." He said they might also violate the Anti-Lobbying Act and its restrictions on grass-roots lobbying on legislative matters.
Lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union raised similar concerns about Mr. Ashcroft's speaking tour, which began this week in Washington, Detroit, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Des Moines and will continue over the next three weeks. The message in all the speeches has been that despite rising criticism the Patriot Act has proved an essential tool in fighting terrorism.
Barbara Comstock, the Justice Department spokeswoman, said Mr. Ashcroft's speaking tour had been thoroughly reviewed by department lawyers and was "entirely appropriate" under federal law.
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company