Attorney General Alberto Gonzales gave two top aides authority to hire and fire political appointees other than U.S. attorneys, according to a Justice Department order obtained Monday by The Associated Press.

The March 2006 order gave Gonzales' then-Chief of Staff Kyle Sampson and later White House liaison Monica Goodling authority to hire and fire about 135 politically appointed Justice Department employees who did not require Senate confirmation.

Labeled "Internal Order," the document bestowed "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 non-civil service employees of the Justice Department.

Such employees include deputy assistant attorneys general and press aides. U.S. attorneys, who serve as the top federal prosecutors in their state districts, normally require Senate confirmation and would not be covered by the order.

The order was first reported Monday by National Journal.

When Gonzales issued the order, top Justice Department officials were well into the process of determining which U.S. attorneys to fire. A month later, Goodling became White House liaison. The list eventually was narrowed to eight U.S. attorneys, and their dismissals began in December.

The uproar that ensued spawned congressional and internal Justice Department investigations, claimed Sampson's and Goodling's jobs and imperiled Gonzales' position.

Democrats pounced on news of the order, complaining that it had not been turned over to them among thousands of other documents released by the department about the firings.

"The mass firing of U.S. attorneys appeared to be part of a systematic scheme to inject political influence into the hiring and firing decisions of key Justice employees," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. "This secret order would seem to be evidence of an effort to hardwire control over law enforcement by White House political operatives."

"This revelation shows that the Attorney General was prepared to engage in an extraordinary delegation of power to two young and unaccountable staffers who may have taken their marching orders directly from the White House," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

But the Justice Department pushed back, saying Gonzales never relinquished authority over hiring and firing decisions. In addition, political appointees _ "non-career employees" _ are just that: they serve at the pleasure of the president and can be fired for any reason.

"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," Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said.

During a Senate hearing April 17, Gonzales repeatedly said he did not recall details of how those firings were carried out, making a point to emphasize that he delegated many of the details to his staff _ notably Sampson and Goodling.

Democrats have accused the two of using ideology to decide which U.S. attorneys to fire, pointing to Sampson and Goodling's frequent consultations with former White House Counsel Harriet Miers and presidential counselor Karl Rove.