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Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. escaped relatively unscathed Wednesday from a highly anticipated congressional hearing, as senators temporarily put aside differences over the U.S. Justice Department’s handling of terrorism suspects and national security policy. Republicans have been criticizing Holder for months — over the venue for accused Sept. 11 conspirators, the reading of Miranda rights to the attempted Christmas Day bomber, the department’s hiring of lawyers who in private practice represented detainees in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and revelations that Holder omitted materials during his confirmation process. But on Wednesday, in their first chance since November to question him directly, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee didn’t ask about the omitted materials and they cut short their questioning on most other topics. Two of Holder’s toughest critics — Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Jon Kyl, R-Ariz. — focused their questions on topics other than terrorism, including healthcare fraud and immigration courts. Leading a display of warmed relations was Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. He’s a potential ally of the Obama administration as officials try to craft consensus on where terrorism suspects should be tried and on long-term detention for those suspects that the government doesn’t think it can convict. “This is music to my ears,” Graham said at one point, after Holder pledged to work with Congress on options to replace the Guantanamo prison. Graham and Holder used the same terms to describe how they think the government should approach terrorism prosecutions: “flexible, pragmatic, and aggressive.” “This administration will use every tool available in order to fight terrorism — every tool available. That includes both civilian courts and military commissions,” Holder said. Graham, speaking generally, agreed. “A financier of al-Qaeda, you may want to take to an Article III court because you might have more charging possibilities,” he said. The agreement follows five months of fierce public debate over Holder’s announcement in November that the Justice Department would try accused Sept. 11 plotter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four co-defendants in federal district court in Manhattan. Holder and the White House have since abandoned that plan, and Holder told senators that a new plan is still “a number” of weeks away. Among the issues still being hashed out: what new rights the detainees would gain if they were transferred from Guantanamo to the United States. “That is a question that has not really been answered yet. … It’s not clear how the court’s going to rule,” Holder said when Graham asked about the issue. Graham said he’s considering legislation that would ensure such a transfer wouldn’t change anything. The need for legislation, he said, has been pointed out in decisions by U.S. District Chief Judge Royce Lamberth and Senior Judge Thomas Hogan of the District of Columbia. “I’ve never seen a judge so open about, ‘Congress needs to help,’” Graham said. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., the committee’s top Republican, was the harshest in his criticism. He said Holder’s actions had shaken his confidence in Holder’s leadership, and he criticized the administration for keeping in place a presumption that captured terrorism suspects would be tried in civilian court. Holder said that there are now 48 detainees who, according to the administration’s review, are too dangerous to transfer but who will not be tried in any venue. In their own questioning of Holder, Democratic senators made clear that they’re not about to second-guess his decisions publicly. “My view on this is that the legislature really has no proper business in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., an outspoken advocate of using civilian courts. “I believe that, on principle, it is one of those areas that the Constitution commands exclusively to the executive branch.” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., praised the original decision to try Mohammed in civilian court, and she said the criticism of Holder has been unfair. “I’ve come to the conclusion that a lot of the attacks are just to diminish you,” she said. “I just want to urge you to remain strong.” The harshest attack on Holder has come from the non-profit group Keep America Safe, which counts Liz Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, among its board members. A video put out by the group targeted what it called the “al-Qaeda seven” — lawyers working in the Justice Department who, while in private practice, represented detainees. The group said Holder failed to disclose the lawyers’ names and their current role in detainee policy. The names have since become public. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who raised the disclosure question last year, returned to the subject Wednesday. He asked again for a list of the lawyers. Holder again declined. “Yours is an honorable request,” Holder told Grassley. But, Holder added, “There has been an attempt to take the names of people who represented Guantanamo detainees and drag their reputations through the mud. … I’m not going to be a part of this effort.” Grassley replied that he doubts Holder would have hired lawyers who represented mobsters, but he did not press further. “I’ll move on,” he said. The hearing lasted three hours. Holder pledged to work with senators on a wide variety of other issues, including the drug war on the U.S.-Mexico border and gang-related crime in New York City. Under questioning from Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., Holder said the Justice Department has not decided whether to appeal a district court ruling from the Northern District of California that said the government’s previous warrantless wiretapping program was illegal. And under questioning from Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., he largely declined to comment on the Justice Department’s review of the proposed Comcast-NBC Universal merger.

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