In the latest development of one of the creepiest stories of campaign 2000, at noon on Saturday the presidential campaign of Vice President Al Gore suspended a staffer for talking -- and then lying about talking -- about the possible existence of a mole in the campaign of his rival, Texas Gov. George W. Bush. The Bush campaign could not be reached for comment.
According to ABC News, which broke the story on its Web site, Michael Doyne, 28, administrative assistant to the Gore campaign's field director, in late August told a source that the Gore camp had a mole in the Bush campaign who "knew where Bush was going before Bush knew."
Gore communications director Mark Fabiani identified ABC News' source as Keith Siskin, a friend and fraternity brother of Doyne's. Neither Doyne nor Siskin could be reached for comment.
The conversations with Doyne and Siskin were part of a wider investigation by ABC News into an incident that began on Sept. 13, when former Rep. Tom Downey, D-N.Y., a close friend of Gore's, alerted the FBI almost immediately after receiving materials sent to him anonymously from Austin, Texas. They included a videotape that showed Bush staging a mock debate with Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., pretending to be Gore, and a wedge of briefing papers.
Downey said he contacted the FBI immediately after realizing what the materials were, and the Gore campaign provided a timeline for reporters to show that Downey and the campaign hadn't had anything to do with the incident. Downey then recused himself from helping Gore with preparation for the coming presidential debates.
After Bush officials verified the authenticity of the tape and documents, Bush asked the FBI to investigate his staff to figure out who had sent the materials to Downey.
It was unclear if Doyne had anything to do with the Downey incident. Fabiani made it clear that the young man had been suspended not because of any transgression as serious as spying. Rather, confronted with the allegation by both ABC News and the Gore campaign, Doyne on Friday denied knowing anything about a mole or having made the comments to Siskin, even signing an affidavit to that effect. But then he admitted that he had talked about the possible mole.
"Several hours later he told us and ABC that, in fact, he had communicated with a longtime friend and fraternity brother, Keith Siskin, about the possible existence of a mole," said Fabiani. "He said he'd made the comments not based on any facts or any actual knowledge. At the same time, we'd been conducting an internal review and have found no evidence of information either received or transferred from the Bush campaign to ours."
Fabiani said that it had been made crystal clear to Gore staffers that "our handling of the Tom Downey situation indicated our policy" about moles. Doyne had been given "paid administrative leave so we could review the situation."
Fabiani described Doyne as "a junior-level staff member" who'd been volunteering for the campaign since January, and had been on the "paid staff for a couple of months."
As for a quote in the ABC News report in which Fabiani seemed to be leaving the door open as to whether there was some spying going on, he said there was "no systematic transmission of information" between the campaigns -- Fabiani said he was misquoted, and issued a more sweeping denial of any spying activities.
"The Gore-Lieberman 2000 campaign is confident that it has not received or used information passed onto it from a 'mole' within the Bush campaign," Fabiani said. "The Gore campaign's handling of the Tom Downey debate tapes situation demonstrates the campaign's strong policy against the receipt or use of confidential information from another campaign. The Gore campaign's clear policy and practice on these issues will continue to be strictly enforced."
Doyne's immediate boss, Donny Fowler, is the son of former Democratic National Committee chairman Don Fowler.
The elder Fowler's name surfaced recently when the New York Times reported that federal investigators were looking into potential abuses of campaign finance laws based on a memo an aide named Erica Payne had written to the elder Fowler, which seemed to imply that President Clinton would veto a tort reform bill in exchange for sizable campaign contributions from trial lawyers.
Payne wrote a note suggesting that the elder Fowler say: "I know" you "will give $100K when the president vetoes tort reform, but we really need it now. Please send ASAP if possible." Payne has been described by former colleagues at the DNC as a lovely person, but careless and clueless enough to write a memo like that -- a description, they insist, that implied nothing more than the limits of her competence.
When I remarked to Fabiani that, even if there's truly nothing to Doyne's remarks to Siskin, it seems pretty clear that the Fowlers need to work on their hirings, he responded, "Yeah, well, we may have another such situation here."
Whether Doyne is innocent of any serious wrongdoing or not, it didn't take long before his name was being bandied about by right-leaning conspiracy theorists in Internet chat rooms. One poster, claiming to be Doyne, wrote: "I ain't admitting nothin', but I'm a young man with my whole life ahead of me. I am not going down for anyone! If need be, I will name names and believe me there are names to name. Fuck this! This isn't what I signed up for. I'm just a kid, dammit!"
The credibility of this posting was called into greater question by the advice given to Doyne in follow-up posts, which featured an array of victims of Clinton conspiracists:
"Michael, Don't despair -- Vince Foster ... Don't drive alone after dark -- Jerry Parks ... Don't fly! -- Ron Brown ... Don't panic -- Webb Hubble."