Washington (CNN) - Attorney General Eric Holder on Friday declared that Justice Department lawyers, criticized for past representation of Guantanamo Bay prison detainees, are patriots who deserve to be praised.
"Let me be clear about this: Lawyers who provide counsel for the unpopular are - and should be treated as what they are - patriots," Holder told a friendly audience.
The crowd, gathered at a Washington hotel to honor voluntary free legal services for indigent criminal and terror suspects, burst into applause when Holder defended his attorneys.
Holder did not mention the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, or al Qaeda by name, nor even refer directly to terrorism, but left no doubt to whom he was referring.
"Lawyers who accept our professional responsibility to protect the rule of law, the right to counsel, and access to our courts - even when this requires defending unpopular positions or clients, deserve the praise and gratitude of all Americans," Holder said. "They also deserve respect. Those who reaffirm our nation's most essential and enduring values do not deserve to have their own values questioned."
Criticism of Holder political appointees who had previously argued on behalf of detainees boiled over when a group led by Elizabeth Cheney, daughter of the former vice president, lashed out at the Obama administration for hiding the identities of the "al Qaeda Seven." The Justice Department has since acknowledged the identities of the Justice officials and noted a long judicial history of representing unpopular defendants.
While Democrats have uniformly denounced the criticism, Republican lawmakers and legal scholars have been divided. Some have charged the appointments reflect a degree of sympathy for the detainees which could impact national security policy. Others have argued that the American legal system necessarily requires able attorneys to advocate for defendants with whom they may have deep philosophical or moral differences.