U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is pressing the Congress to renew the Patriot Act, the set of laws that expanded the government's power to go after terrorists in the wake of the 2001 attacks. But civil liberties advocates are urging lawmakers to oppose the renewal.

Attorney General Gonzales told a group of county officials meeting in Washington that renewal of the Patriot Act is a crucial step in keeping the United States safe from further terrorist attacks.

The Patriot Act was passed by Congress shortly after the September, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.

Attorney General Gonzales says the law has made it easier for law enforcement and intelligence officials to share information about terrorist threats and to track terrorist communications through computers, e-mail and cellular telephones. "They are trained to switch phones and e-mail accounts in order to make it harder for us to track them, he said. "But under the Patriot Act, officials may now obtain court approval to use a multi-point wiretap (expanded wiretap authority) to track a terror suspect's phone communications even when the suspected terrorist switches, changes or abandons phones to avoid detection."

But the congressional debate over whether to reauthorize the Patriot Act promises to be intense and lengthy. Civil liberties advocates are urging lawmakers to oppose renewal of the act without substantial changes to safeguard privacy rights. That demand has won support among many liberal lawmakers and even a few conservatives who are concerned that the new government powers are too intrusive.

"It is being used in a very sinister way as a pretext to, in fact, shred the Bill of Rights, to denigrate civil liberties and civil rights that we have fought for so many years," said

Ron Daniels, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, a civil liberties advocacy group based in Washington.

Attorney General Gonzales says he is willing to consider some changes to the Patriot Act, but only to a point. "If some have suggestions for improvements that will make America safer, I would be interested in hearing those, he said. "But mindful of the tragedy of September 11th, I will not support changes that would make America more vulnerable to terrorist attacks."

The Congress is expected to debate and vote on the Patriot Act renewal before the act expires in October.