The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday heard its first public testimony from a current White House aide in the investigation of U.S. attorney firings.
Scott Jennings, President Bush's deputy political director, was not the committee's first choice to headline the hearing. The panel had issued subpoenas for Jennings and his boss, Karl Rove, to testify and bring documents about the dismissal of U.S. attorneys.
But Wednesday evening, in a letter to the committee, the White House claimed executive privilege and said that Rove, the president's top political adviser, would not show up. Jennings, the White House said, would testify with instructions not to answer questions about the firing of U.S. attorneys.
The witness, who pointed out that he's only 29, compared himself to a Greek hero, trapped between two mythological sea monsters.
"I hope that you can appreciate the difficulty of my situation," Jennings told the panel. "It makes Odysseus' voyage between Scylla and Charybdis seem like a pleasure cruise."
The witness pleaded for the committee's sympathy as he refused again and again to answer senators' questions.
"Senator, I'm doing the best I can," Jennings said. "And believe me, this is likely as frustrating for me as it is for you, but I'm doing the best I can."
A very unsympathetic committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) replied, "No, trust me, it is not." He added: "I believe you and others at the White House who have refused to answer questions could answer questions if you wanted to."
Whether Jennings could or not, he often didn't.
Sometimes, he refused to answer questions that former White House political director Sara Taylor answered at the same committee, under the same restrictions, just a couple of weeks ago. Other times, Jennings declined to confirm information that is already in the public record.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) asked Jennings to confirm an e-mail showing that Jennings helped set up a Justice Department meeting for a Republican official from New Mexico who was concerned about the U.S. attorney there. Jennings declined, citing "the president's assertion of executive privilege."
An exasperated Schumer replied: "We are getting to be in never-never land here. The memo is not privileged, but your confirming what we all have read in the memo is privileged?"
After conferring with his lawyer, Jennings confirmed that he wrote the e-mail, but refused to confirm its contents.
Leahy was more successful when asking about e-mails that Jennings and other White House staffers sent from Republican National Committee accounts. Democrats are concerned that people at the White House did government work on their RNC accounts to avoid presidential records-keeping laws.
Jennings explained that for him, it was a matter of convenience. When he arrived at the White House, Jennings said, he was given a BlackBerry and a laptop that connected to his RNC account. Only his office desktop connected to the official White House account.
"So over the course of time, the use of the Republican National Committee e-mail account became a matter of convenience and efficiency, because I had access to it 24 hours a day, seven days a week, unlike my other e-mail account," Jennings said.
Jennings said he once asked for a BlackBerry with his White House account. His request was denied. But after the story about the RNC accounts broke publicly, Jennings got a White House BlackBerry.
Jennings told the committee that if Congress and the White House can sort out their differences over executive privilege, he'd be happy to answer all the committee's questions at that time.
Speaking with reporters after the hearing, ranking committee Republican Sen. Arlen Specter (PA) said, "We're never going to come to the end of this, guys. It's a multi-year process."