White House Aide Talks But Does Not Reveal Much at Senate Judiciary Panel Hearing

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday scored its first public interview with a currently-serving aide to President Bush about the firings of federal prosecutors.

But the session with White House political aide J. Scott Jennings yeilded little more than an appeal for sympathy and a citation of Greek mythology.

With top presidential aide Karl Rove skipping the hearing on Bush's orders, the committee had to make do with a Rove underling who made clear he was appearing only to signal goodwill and to avoid a contempt of Congress citation.

"I will be unable at this time to answer any questions concerning White House consideration, deliberations or communications related to the U.S. attorneys matter," Jennings, deputy director of Bush's White House political shop, told the panel. He made that assertion after initially noting at the outset that he is only 29 years old.

The committee has heard all of this before.

Jennings' former boss, Sara Taylor, took a similar approach last month when she testified with a lawyer by her side and for several hours tried to pick and choose which questions to answer and which to refuse — citing executive privilege.

Like Taylor, Jennings said he would answer questions if a court directed him to do so. But the matter was unlikely to get that far.

Congressional Democrats for seven months have been investigating whether the Justice Department's purge of several federal prosecutors over the winter was done at the White House's direction, for improper political purposes. Bush and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales have denied that anything improper occurred and pointed out that U.S. attorneys are political appointees who can be fired for any reason.

But the probe has been costly for the administration, spinning off into other subjects and calling into question Gonzales' truthfulness in his own answers to Congress. Most of Gonzales' top aides have resigned over the uproar, and lawmakers of both parties have widely called for a new attorney general. The matter has produced a few calls for a special counsel and questions about whether Gonzales perjured himself before Congress.

Jennings' refusal to answer questions is all very familiar to the committee. What they hadn't heard before was a young political buck quoting Greek literature to its members.

"I hope that you can appreciate the difficulty of my situation," Jennings said. "It makes Odysseus' voyage between Scylla and Charybdis seem like a pleasure cruise."

Whether Jennings' legal journey bore any resemblance to Homer's Odyssey was unclear. Scylla and Charybdis were sea monsters and the phrase has come to mean being between two dangers when moving away from one brings a person in danger of the other.

But committee members were not intrigued.

"Mr. Jennings, I am not here to play games," warned Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. "Let's not be too contemptuous of this committee."