WASHINGTON - Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales gave two top aides the authority to hire and fire political appointees other than U.S. attorneys last year, according to a Justice Department order obtained yesterday by the Associated Press.

The March 2006 order gave Gonzales' then-chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, and his later White House liaison, Monica Goodling, the 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 department.

Such employees include deputy assistant attorneys general and press aides. U.S. attorneys, 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 by National Journal.

When Gonzales issued the order, top Justice 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 has spawned congressional and internal Justice Department investigations, claimed Sampson's and Goodling's jobs, and imperiled Gonzales' position.

Democrats complained that the order had not been turned over to them among thousands of other documents released by Justice 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," Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D., Vt.) said. "This secret order would seem to be evidence of an effort to hardwire control over law enforcement by White House political operatives."

The Justice Department said Gonzales had never relinquished authority over hiring and firing decisions. Spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said the order simply authorized the two aides "to execute certain decisions related to the hiring and termination of some non-career employees" - political appointees - with Gonzales' approval.

During a Senate hearing April 17, Gonzales repeatedly said he did not recall details of how those firings were carried out, emphasizing 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.