BERKELEY -- Prosecuting terror suspects in federal court is consistent with American values and those who argue against it are "simply wrong," Attorney General Eric Holder said Saturday.

Hundreds of individuals have been convicted and jailed for terrorism-related offenses since 9/11, underscoring that the courts can effectively handle such emotionally charged cases, Holder said in a speech during UC Berkeley law school's commencement ceremony.

"Let me be clear: those who claim that our federal courts are incapable of handling terrorism cases are not registering a dissenting opinion," Holder said. "They are simply wrong. Their assertions ignore reality. And attempting to limit the use of these courts would weaken our ability to incapacitate and to punish those who target our people and attempt to terrorize our communities."

Holder's defense of using the courts comes as federal authorities are building the case against alleged Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokar Tsarnaev, who some have argued should face a military tribunal.

It also follows President Barack Obama saying last month that he would recommit himself to closing the Guantanamo Bay prison, where about 100 of the 166 detainees are now on a hunger strike over conditions.

Speaking before a large graduation-day crowd, Holder said fear and uncertainty among Americans after 9/11 led to the abandonment of legal safeguards, especially in the drive to gather information from terror suspects.


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"We used techniques that were of questionable effectiveness, but were certainly inconsistent with who we say we are as a people," Holder said. "And in bringing suspected terrorists to justice, some questioned -- and continue to question -- the capacity and effectiveness of our federal civilian court system."

It mirrors what happened following the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, when federal authorities interned Japanese-Americans, Holder said. The U.S. Supreme Court later upheld the detentions, he noted, despite most of those held being American citizens.

"Positive outcomes are not preordained," Holder said. "As history teaches us, our great country doesn't always get it right."

As family and friends of the graduates were arriving for the ceremony at the university's Greek Theatre, about a dozen protesters were outside, highlighting the plight of Guantanamo Bay prisoners. Some wore orange jumpsuits and black hoods.

Along with closing Guantanamo, the protesters called on the university to fire John Yoo, a law school professor who advised President George W. Bush on the interrogation of terror suspects, including on the use of waterboarding.

"John Yoo has no place on the faculty," said Stephanie Tang of the group The World Can't Wait. "He should be fired, barred and discarded for war crimes for what he did under the Bush-Cheney regime."

A private aircraft circled the open-air theater, pulling a banner that urged Holder to end the Justice Department's bid to shut down medical marijuana dispensaries, such as Oakland's Harborside Health Center. Holder did not touch on the issue during his talk.

"Especially in moments of crisis, when we are under attack or faced with difficulty and danger, our actions -- your actions -- must be grounded in the bedrock of the Constitution," Holder told the graduates. "And steps forward must be rooted not only in our proudest legal traditions -- but also our highest ideals."

Contact Peter Hegarty at 510-748-1654 or follow him at Twitter.com/Peter_Hegarty.