New questions after testimony by Gonzales aide

Wednesday's appearance by former Justice official Monica Goodling has provided congressional Democrats with more subjects for possible investigation.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

She portrayed herself as a mere foot soldier of the Justice Department. She offered little new information as to who targeted the eight US attorneys who were dismissed suddenly last December – and why the controversial firings might have occurred.

Still, Wednesday's long-awaited testimony of former Justice official Monica Goodling has provided congressional Democrats with yet more subjects for possible investigation.

She described an "uncomfortable" attempt by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to discuss the firings with her despite the fact that they both knew they were likely to be asked to testify before Congress. And she admitted that she had "crossed the line" in using political benchmarks for hiring lower-level Justice Department workers.

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"Every rock [congressional investigators] lift up, they seem to find something under it," says Benjamin Wittes, a Brookings Institution guest scholar in governance studies.

If nothing else, Ms. Goodling's appearance emphasized the circular firing-squad aspect of the furor over the fired attorneys – with many of the major figures in the controversy blaming one another for any mistakes that may have occurred.

For instance, Goodling claimed that Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty knew full well that the White House had been involved in at least some of the firings – and that when he testified otherwise to Congress, he was "not fully candid."

Mr. McNulty, who has announced his resignation from the Justice Department, has said he was kept in the dark on key issues related to the firings by Goodling and Kyle Sampson, the former chief of staff to Attorney General Gonzales.

In a statement issued Wednesday, McNulty said Goodling's "characterization of my testimony is wrong" and unsupported by documents and other congressional testimony.

As to her mid-March discussion with Gonzales himself about the firings, Goodling said the attorney general began laying out his memory of how they occurred in a manner she felt at that point they should not be discussing.

Asked if she thought Gonzales was trying to shape her own recollections, Goodling said "no."

Goodling, former Justice Department liaison to the White House, was forthright about admitting that she had hired people for career-level positions because they were Republicans, while turning down Democrats.

Asked how often she had taken political considerations into account, Goodling said only that it was fewer than 50 times. Civil service rules prohibit such inquiries in regards to career professionals.

"This is extremely serious.... There is a very long tradition of nonpartisan hiring at career levels in the Justice Department," says Mr. Wittes of Brookings.

Meanwhile, internal Justice Department documents released in conjunction with Goodling's appearance provided some fresh details about the unease that arose quickly at high levels of the department after last year's firings became public.

"Looks like this is going to get messy," read a Dec. 28, 2006, e-mail from Christopher Oprison, a White House lawyer, to Goodling and Mr. Sampson as stories began to appear about the appointment of Tim Griffin as US attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas.

Mr. Griffin, a former aide to White House political director Karl Rove, also appeared quite upset by press articles questioning whether politics had played a role in his appointment.

"This is wrong in so many ways," fumed Griffin in a January e-mail to Justice officials that included a story about his new job.

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