Holder did not mention torture or name the target of his criticism, leveled in a speech for a law conference at the U.S. Military Academy. However, he praised military lawyers in the Judge Advocate General Corps for their work representing terror detainees.
"In our current struggle against international terrorism, when others surrendered faithful obedience to the law to the circumstances of the time, it was the brave men and women of the JAG corps who stood up against the tides, many times risking their careers to do so," Holder said.
The speech came a day before a court deadline for the Obama administration to release all or parts of key Bush administration memos detailing which tough interrogation techniques were acceptable against terror suspects. Critics of the Bush administration say those tough techniques amounted to torture.
Holder insisted that even when the government must act in secrecy for national security reasons, "we must be most vigilant in relying on the rule of law to govern our conduct."
"A need to act behind closed doors does not grant a license to pursue policies, and to take actions, that cannot withstand the disinfecting power of sunlight," the attorney general said.
His remarks stood in sharp contrast to criticism last month from former Vice President Dick Cheney, who charged that the Obama administration was making the country less safe by dismantling some Bush-era anti-terror programs.
Holder told his audience, "We will not sacrifice our values or trample on our Constitution under the false premise that it is the only way to protect our national security."
The gathering of about 150 included military and civilian lawyers and law professors as well as Army cadets and their colleagues from the Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard academies.
Holder was given a standing ovation at the end of his speech.
The attorney general acknowledged that the hardest part of his job so far is emptying the Guantanamo Bay detention facility of terror suspects by early next year. Some will be released or sent to other countries, and others will face prosecution in U.S. federal courts. Officials still don't know what to do about the third category of detainees.
"If a detainee is too dangerous to release, yet there are insurmountable obstacles to prosecuting him in federal court, what shall we do?" Holder said. "Though we do not know yet the answer, I pledge that the ultimate solution will be one that is grounded in our Constitution."