Holder Takes Heat From Senate Panel Senate Republicans have spent the past few months criticizing Attorney General Eric Holder in speeches and press releases, mostly focused on his national security decisions. On Wednesday, they questioned Holder to his face. He tried to explain some of his comments — and backed away from others.
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Holder Takes Heat From Senate Panel

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Holder Takes Heat From Senate Panel

Holder Takes Heat From Senate Panel

Holder Takes Heat From Senate Panel

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Senate Republicans have spent the past few months criticizing Attorney General Eric Holder in speeches and press releases, mostly focused on his national security decisions. On Wednesday, they questioned Holder to his face. He tried to explain some of his comments — and backed away from others.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

NPR's Ari Shapiro attended the hearing and has this report.

ARI SHAPIRO: Attorney General Holder is something of a punching bag for Republicans. Over the last year, comments like this one have been common...

JEFF SESSIONS: Your actions have shaken my confidence in your leadership at the Department of Justice.

SHAPIRO: That was the Senate Judiciary Committee's ranking Republican Jeff Sessions of Alabama at the start of this morning's hearing. His biggest criticism is tied to Holder's insistence that civilian courts are the best venue for terrorism trials.

SESSIONS: The course you've chosen on national security is steering us into a head on collision with reality. Reality is a stubborn thing, pretending that terrorists can safely be treated as common criminals will not make it so.

SHAPIRO: Holder rejected that description.

ERIC HOLDER: The Bush administration used the criminal justice system to interrogate, to prosecute and to incarcerate terrorists for the same reason that the Obama administration has. It is an extremely effective tool to ensure justice and to protect the security of the American people.

SHAPIRO: Holder said it would seriously weaken America's national security if Congress limits funding for civilian terrorism trials. This is becoming a well- worn routine between Holder and Republicans. Today, a handful of senators said, enough. It started with Democrat Diane Feinstein of California.

DIANE FEINSTEIN: Democrats did not do to President Bush following 9/11 what is being done to this administration with respect to their decision-making. And I really find it reprehensible.

SHAPIRO: Then she offered Holder some advice.

FEINSTEIN: I've come to the conclusion that a lot of the attacks are just to diminish you, and I don't think you should buy into that at all. I think you should remain strong.

SHAPIRO: Rhode Island Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse put it this way...

SHELDON WHITEHOUSE: The emblems of American justice are the blindfold and the balance, not the torch and the pitchfork.

SHAPIRO: Even Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina joined the chorus, with a caveat.

LINDSEY GRAHAM: Hang firm, stand strong, be fair, be aggressive, be pragmatic, but do not lose sight that we're at war.

SHAPIRO: Graham asked Holder whether there's a prison where an important terrorist captured overseas today could be locked up. Holder said that's one of the issues we have to wrestle with.

HOLDER: I think we have to come up with options and I think we need to work with the Congress to try to develop what those options might be.

GRAHAM: This is music to my ears because I think we do also, because we're fighting a war without a viable jail.

SHAPIRO: Some of Holder's problems are of his own making. Last month he told a House committee that Osama bin Laden will never be captured alive. Then other top administration officials said, not so. Today, senators asked Holder to clarify. And he said the plan is still to capture or kill bin Laden.

HOLDER: What I said in that hearing was an assessment of I think the likelihood that we are going to be able to capture him alive.

SHAPIRO: The only time Holder seemed to get riled was when Iowa Republican Charles Grassley asked again for the names of Justice Department attorneys who represented Guantanamo detainees during the Bush administration. The last time Grassley made that request, a conservative activist group followed up with an ad calling those lawyers the Al-Qaida Seven. Holder called the ad a reprehensible effort to drag good Americans through the mud.

HOLDER: I will not allow their reputations to be besmirtched. I will not be a part of that.

SHAPIRO: Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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