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U.S. enjoys parades, picnics under watchful eyes of police

The Haig family stands for the United States pledge of allegiance before a public reading the United States Declaration of Independence, part of Fourth of July Independence Day celebrations, in Boston, Massachusetts July 4, 2013. People across the United States gathered on Thursday for parades, picnics and fireworks at Independence Day celebrations, held under unprecedented security following the Boston Marathon bombings. Spectators waving U.S. flags and wearing red, white and blue headed for public gatherings in Boston, New York, Washington, Atlanta and other cities under the close watch of police armed with hand-held chemical detectors, radiation scanners and camera surveillance, precautions sparked by the deadly April 15 bombings.     REUTERS/Brian Snyder  (UNITED STATES - Tags: SOCIETY ANNIVERSARY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)

The Haig family stands for the United States pledge of allegiance before a public reading the United States Declaration of Independence, part of Fourth of July Independence Day celebrations, in Boston, Massachusetts July 4, 2013. People across the United States gathered on Thursday for parades, picnics and fireworks at Independence Day celebrations, held under unprecedented security following the Boston Marathon bombings. Spectators waving U.S. flags and wearing red, white and blue headed for public gatherings in Boston, New York, Washington, Atlanta and other cities under the close watch of police armed with hand-held chemical detectors, radiation scanners and camera surveillance, precautions sparked by the deadly April 15 bombings. REUTERS/Brian Snyder (UNITED STATES - Tags: SOCIETY ANNIVERSARY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)

People across the United States gathered on Thursday for parades, picnics and fireworks at Independence Day celebrations, held under unprecedented security following the Boston Marathon bombings.

Spectators waving U.S. flags and wearing red, white and blue headed for public gatherings in Boston, New York, Washington, Atlanta and other cities under the close watch of police armed with hand-held chemical detectors, radiation scanners and camera surveillance, precautions sparked by the deadly April 15 bombings.

A U.S. national security official said on Wednesday that U.S. intelligence agencies were unaware of any attack threat by militants timed to occur on July 4.

Under steamy summer skies, tourists in New York flocked to ferries headed for the Statue of Liberty, which re-opened with an Independence Day ceremony after closing in October as Superstorm Sandy approached. The storm swamped about 75 percent of Liberty Island, the statue’s home off the southern tip of Manhattan.

“I’m in awe of it,” Mel Burns of Brisbane, Australia, said as she gazed up for the first time at Lady Liberty’s torch more than 300 feet above the ground. “It’s a lot bigger than what I anticipated.”

At an outdoors reopening ceremony near the statue’s pedestal, David Luchsinger, the superintendent of the Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island, recalled the statue’s recent history, including the closure of the statue’s crown to visitors as a security precaution after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, before it was re-opened to the public in 2009. The statue’s entire interior was then closed for a year-long renovation in October 2011, and it was then reopened for a single day, last October, as Superstorm Sandy neared New York City.

“I don’t know about you, but I’m getting a little sick and tired of opening and closing and re-opening the Statue of Liberty,” he said, drawing laughter from the crowd, “so this time, I think we’ll just keep it open.”

Others headed for Brooklyn’s Coney Island to cheer on competitors in the annual Nathan’s Famous hot dog eating contest.

Six-time champion Joey “Jaws” Chestnut broke his own world record by downing 69 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes, holding onto the Mustard Yellow International Belt. His female counterpart, Sonya “The Black Widow” Thomas, also broke her record, swallowing 36 and three-quarter dogs in 10 minutes.

“I think it’s very New York and very exciting,” said Samantha Belfon, 29, a clinical social worker from Brooklyn, who braved the summer heat to watch the annual competition.

Amid controversy over revelations about the National Security Agency, some marked the nation’s 237th birthday by demanding respect for its founding principles.

In Birmingham, Alabama, about 50 demonstrators gathered under intermittent rain and thunderstorms for a “Restore the Fourth” protest - a reference to the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures -- to denounce NSA surveillance programs.

The NSA scandal weighed heavily on the minds of some parade-goers in Maplewood, N.J.

“I think we’ve lost our way,” said Joe Kyle, who teaches U.S. history at a public high school in New Jersey and was pulling his two young daughters in a red wagon festooned with a half-dozen American flags.

Referring to Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor wanted by Washington for leaking secrets about government surveillance, Kyle said: “I think he should be celebrated, not prosecuted.”

His wife, Kate Ritchie, an attorney, said Snowden should be criminally charged, although she was not surprised by his allegations of NSA spying.

“I don’t like it but it’s not a shocking revelation,” Ritchie said. “There is still plenty about our country to celebrate at this time.”

Fourth of July celebrations mark some of the largest public gatherings since bombs exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, the biggest attack on American soil since followers of Osama bin Laden crashed hijacked jetliners into the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001.

Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the two brothers suspected of carrying out the attack on the marathon, originally planned to set off their homemade bombs on July 4 but struck earlier because they had made the devices sooner than expected, law enforcement officials have said.

Tamerlan was killed in a shootout with police, and Dzhokhar is in prison awaiting trial on charges including murder and using a weapon of mass destruction. He could face the death penalty if convicted.