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Attorney General Eric Holder stands his ground at Senate hearing

"I've heard you say frequently 'as soon as possible,' but it's getting late," Cardin said. "This is an issue that is difficult for us to defend, when we . . . don't have a policy to defend."

Republicans were mostly critical of Holder, accusing him of undoing Bush administration policies and weakening the U.S. response to terrorism.

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said he supports Obama's push to "fashion detention policy that allows us to be at war within our values," and he agreed with military commanders that closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is important to bolstering support from allies abroad. But without a political consensus on where to move those detainees or funding for a proposed facility in Illinois, he said, "we're basically a nation without a viable jail."

Sen Jeff Sessions (Ala.), the ranking Republican on the panel, bluntly said Holder is endangering Americans by not backing off a "presumption" to try terrorism suspects in civilian courts, instead of before military commissions. And he criticized Holder for refusing to admit that he erred last fall in saying the government would make its strongest legal case in New York -- a decision Holder called "a close call" on Wednesday.

"Your actions have shaken my confidence in your leadership at the Department of Justice," Sessions said. "The course you've chosen on national security is steering us into a head-on collision with reality. . . . Pretending that terrorists can safely be treated as common criminals will not make it so."

Holder responded that, at the same time he moved to send the five Sept. 11 defendants to New York, he announced that the Pentagon would conduct military commissions for five other detainees in Cuba. And Senate Democrats argued that the Bush and Obama administrations have used both criminal prosecutions and military tribunals in what Holder called a "flexible . . . pragmatic . . . and aggressive" response.

Americans' best interests are served by "maximum flexibility" in the treatment of detainees, said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), adding that the Bush administration secured 200 terrorism convictions in civilian courts. Military commissions -- whose procedures faced legal obstacles for years -- have led to three convictions, she said.

"I think you should remain strong," Feinstein told Holder.

Staff writer Anne E. Kornblut and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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