The attorney general's secret memo

One more thing Alberto Gonzales must have forgotten to mention.

Published May 1, 2007 2:32AM (EDT)

Something new for Alberto Gonzales to not remember: A secret memo he signed last March in which he gave two aides what the National Journal's Murray Waas calls "extraordinary authority over the hiring and firing of most non-civil-service employees of the Justice Department."

The aides? Kyle Sampson and Monica Goodling, both of whom have now resigned amid the controversy over the firing of eight U.S. attorneys last year.

In the March 2006 memo, Gonzales delegated "the authority, with the approval of the attorney general, to take final action in matters pertaining to the appointment, employment, pay, separation, and general administration" of virtually all non-civil-service employees of the Justice Department.

As Waas reports, the existence of the memo "suggests that a broad effort was under way by the White House to place politically and ideologically loyal appointees throughout the Justice Department" -- and not just at the U.S. attorney level. A "senior executive branch official" familiar with the situation tells Waas that Goodling and Sampson planned to work closely with the White House in deciding whom to fire and whom to hire in their place. "It was an attempt to make the department more responsive to the political side of the White House and to do it in such a way that people would not know it was going on," the official said. Among those who might have been kept in the dark: Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, through whose office one might expect hiring and firing decisions to flow normally.

Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy apparently first learned of the secret memo when he read about it in the National Journal, and he's understandably unhappy that no one at Justice thought to tell his committee about it sooner. "This memorandum should have been turned over to Senate and House committees as part of requests made in ongoing investigations," Leahy said in a statement released this afternoon. "I expect the Department of Justice to immediately provide Congress with full information about this troubling decision as well as any other related documents they have failed to turn over to date."

Republicans and Democrats who believe that Gonzales and the White House have been less than forthcoming with Congress will no doubt consider this latest revelation evidence of either further incompetence or further deceit. The Justice Department is already writing it off as much ado about nothing. Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse tells the Associated Press: "This order simply gives the chief of staff and the White House liaison the authority to execute certain decisions related to the hiring and termination of some non-career employees with, as the memo states, the approval of the attorney general."

Maybe so. But as Waas notes, that's only because the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel nixed an earlier version of the memo. That one would have given the two aides authority to fire most department employees without running their decisions by Gonzales first.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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