BUFFALO, N.Y. – Although key provisions in the Patriot Act (search) aren't set to expire for another 19 months, President Bush warned Tuesday that getting rid of the law's wide-ranging enforcement tools will put the nation at a disadvantage in fighting terror.
He also said that civil liberties will continue to be protected in this age of terrorism.
"Now a threat overseas can end up being a threat to the homeland. And in order to protect the homeland, these good people have got to be able to share information," Bush told several hundred political supporters, along with firefighters, police and other rescue workers in Buffalo, N.Y. About 100 anti-war protesters demonstrated outside the Kleinhans Music Hall as Bush spoke.
"Those who criticize the Patriot Act must listen to the folks on the front line of defending America. The Patriot Act defends our liberty, is what it does, under the Constitution of the United States," he said.
Bush appeared alongside a former deputy attorney general and U.S. attorney who last year successfully secured terrorism convictions against the Lackawanna Six, a terror cell outside Buffalo.
Federal prosecutors, including Pete Ahearn, the FBI agent in charge of the Buffalo field office, said without the Patriot Act, they couldn't have busted the Yemeni-American group, which pleaded guilty to supporting terrorism by attending Al Qaeda (search) training camps in Afghanistan.
"We were fighting with one arm tied behind our back," said Ahearn, who appeared with Bush.
The law broke down the walls that had barred FBI agents investigating criminal matters and intelligence matters from sharing information, said U.S. Attorney Mike Battle of the western district of New York, who also stood with the president.
Before the Patriot Act, FBI agents "could talk about Buffalo Bills football, but they couldn't talk about protecting the homeland," Bush said.
A defense attorney for the Lackawanna Six (search), James Harrington, contends the federal government has exaggerated the importance of the Lackawanna case and the danger posed by those involved. Harrington has asked for a meeting with Bush to let the president hear an alternate view of prosecutions of people accused of participating in terrorism.
Defense lawyers for the Lackawanna Six have said the men were victims of high-pressure recruiters who appealed to their sense of religious duty in persuading them to seek military-style training.
Bush argues, however, that the law has broken down the "wall" that separated criminal law enforcement and intelligence agencies that formerly were unable to communicate.
Portions of the Patriot Act are scheduled to sunset in December 2005, by which time Congress would have to renew the provisions if they are not to expire. Administration officials say the law has been so misrepresented by Democrats and civil libertarians that the president must act now to shore up support for its extension. Several conservative Republicans have also argued that two of the law's provisions are too intrusive.
One provision allows sneak-and-peek searches to permit law enforcement agencies to surreptitiously enter premises for evidence and inform terrorism suspects later. Another gives law enforcement agencies investigating terrorism the ability to obtain library records on demand.
Bush's Democratic rival John Kerry (search) voted for the law in October 2001 along with 97 other senators, but now says the act has done nothing to enhance information-sharing between intelligence and law enforcement officials, as the president claims.
Kerry accused Bush of "trying to rewrite history" and depicting the Patriot Act as a "cure-all for intelligence failures." Though the Kerry campaign acknowledged that the law gave authorities some "important new tools," including the stiffening of sentences for terrorist crimes, the Massachusetts senator said he would let the Patriot Act expire.
Bush argued that laws of a post-Sept. 11 world need to "reflect the reality." He also said operations in Iraq are helping to prevent another terror attack in the homeland.
"[Saddam Hussein] was paying for terrorists to kill," Bush said. In a post-Sept. 11 world, the United States decided to "take actions to defend our country.
"We are fighting the enemy there so we won't have to them here," he said.
After his speech in Buffalo, Bush headed to New York City, where attended a fund-raiser and get-out-the-vote event for the Republican National Committee (search) that was expected to raise $3.75 million for GOP candidates.
"The faster I speak, the quicker you eat," Bush told 130 contributors at a private club on the East Side of Manhattan. The donors then dug into shrimp salad in a small room that bore a striking resemblance to the Oval Office.
While the president spent his time meeting with party faithful, his campaign promoted his "tremendous resiliency," which they say has been demonstrated by new polls showing Bush leading Kerry despite a month of tough obstacles.
"Despite pundit speculation that the president had been weakened over the course of the last month, the president's ballot position has improved, he shows tremendous strength over Kerry on handling terrorism and Iraq and he has made significant gains on handling the other important issues of the day," read a strategy memo titled "President Bush Shows Tremendous Resiliency."
Bush, who had been behind Kerry in prior polls, has faced criticism during the Sept. 11 commission hearings for his pre-terror attack policies and approach to Iraq, which has seen the most violent month of fighting since the war.
The Bush campaign spent nearly $50 million in March, a record for presidential campaign spending. It raised $26.2 million last month and about $52.9 million for the quarter, setting a presidential campaign record for a three-month period, a finance report showed.
Fox News' James Rosen and The Associated Press contributed to this report.