Spy vs. spy

With few facts, both the Bush and Gore campaigns accuse each other of dirty tricks.

Published September 26, 2000 7:26PM (EDT)

The Federal Bureau of Investigation isn't treating the story about the alleged "mole" in the campaign of Gov. George W. Bush as gravely as the representatives of the campaigns of both Bush and Vice President Al Gore. "There's no 'investigation,'" says Tracy Silverling, an FBI spokeswoman. "It's a 'preliminary inquiry.' We don't even know if there was any federal violation of law."

But that hasn't stopped both Republicans and Democrats from insinuating nefarious shenanigans worthy of Robert Ludlum. (Possible titles: "The Austin Postmark," "The Downey Conundrum" and "The Rove Allegations.") Bush campaign officials are accusing the Gore campaign of knowing more about political espionage than it's telling; Gore supporters, and even the vice president himself, have hinted that they think they're being set up. This week, the head of the Texas Democratic Party went so far as to say that the whole affair reminds her of dirty tricks past by Bush's chief strategist, Karl Rove, though she had no evidence whatsoever to link Rove to the creepiest incident so far in Campaign 2000.

Other Democrats were quick to point out that Rove himself had once been involved in telling reporters about an FBI investigation of an opposing candidate, and had even possibly lied before a Texas state Senate hearing when asked about the matter. Absolutely none of this tied Rove to this latest incident, but that didn't stop Democrats from blanket-faxing the media universe with background materials about the 1990 hearing, as well as about other accounts of Rove's more questionable dealings.

The high-stakes game of "Spy vs. Spy" began on Sept. 13, when a pal of Gore's, former Rep. Tom Downey, D-N.Y., received a mysterious package with an Austin, Texas, postmark. It contained a tape of Bush practicing for his pending debates with Gore, as well as a sheaf of debate preparation materials, all of which Downey says he immediately turned over to the FBI. It has yet to be revealed who sent the materials to Downey, but the former Long Island congressman has since recused himself from helping Gore prepare for the debates.

Immediately the guessing game began. Was there a Gore spy, as the Bush campaign believes, or were the Gore-bies being set up by Bush dirty tricksters? During a Sunday conference call with reporters on the subject of Medicare, Gore seemed to imply that the Bush campaign was involved. "If they keep sending -- if somebody in the Bush campaign keeps sending -- confidential internal data to us, we'll keep turning it over to the FBI."

Asked if he was insinuating -- without any proof -- that the tape incident was part of a "dirty trick" by the Bush campaign, Gore said that he had "no comment. I don't know who sent it; I don't know why that person sent it. I read the reports that the FBI had identified a Bush campaign official as the person responsible."

Media reports have since stated that the FBI believes it knows who mailed the materials to Downey, and has identified the person as a member of the Bush campaign.

But Bush communications director Karen Hughes expressed irritation at such reports namely because the FBI had not clued the Bush campaign in to the developments. "It is wrong and inappropriate for the Justice Department to play politics, by leaking information about an ongoing law enforcement investigation in the midst of a presidential campaign," she said.

Moreover, the Bush team was rankled at the FBI leaks since as of Tuesday the only specific individual to become tarnished in media investigations into the mole has been a Gore campaign staffer.

On Saturday, a 28-year-old Gore aide, Michael Doyne, was suspended with pay by the Gore campaign for first denying in an affidavit, and then later recanting, that he'd made remarks about a "mole" in the Bush campaign. Doyne later told Salon that the incidents in question were much ado about nothing. But the Bush campaign called the reports about Doyne "disturbing."

"It seems that there are people at the Gore campaign who may know more about a possible transfer of info from the Bush campaign than we previously thought," said Bush spokeswoman Mindy Tucker. "As the FBI continues to investigate the issue of the tape, and the media continues to ask questions about the e-mail situation, people in Nashville continue to get more and more nervous."

But the head of the Texas Democratic Party says that it's the Bush campaign that seems to be acting desperately. "I have some idea of how both [Bush media consultant Mark] McKinnon and Karl Rove work on campaigns," says Molly Beth Malcolm, state party chairwoman. "When I first heard about this, my immediate reaction was to turn to my husband and say, 'This thing has Karl Rove's fingerprints all over it.'"

"I didn't say who did it," Malcolm says, when asked if she was directly accusing Rove of sending the debate materials to Downey. "I just said it has an awful close look to some things he's done in the past. And history does repeat itself."

So what are Democrats even talking about? Are they trying to smear Rove in an attempt to provide cover for a possible spy in the Bush campaign? Though there is some evidence of dirty tricks by Rove in the past, none of it establishes anything more than the fact that if you were at the beach, Rove might not be the guy you'd ask to hold onto your wallet while you went in for a dip -- especially if you happened to be running a campaign against a Rove-backed candidate.

The hoodwink-in' began as long ago as when Rove was just a teen. According to "Bad Boy: The Life and Times of Lee Atwater" by John Joseph Brady, a biography of the legendary Republican mudslinger, Rove pretended to volunteer at the campaign headquarters of a Democratic candidate for state treasurer while he was working on the Republican candidate's campaign. Once inside the Democrat's office, he "took some of the candidate's campaign stationery and used it to fake a thousand invitations to the opening of the Democrat's headquarters. He added 'free beer, free food, girls and a good time for nothing' to the invitations, distributed at a hippie commune, a rock concert and soup kitchens in Chicago."

Rove pooh-poohed the incident to the Dallas Morning News, saying, "I was 19 years old and got involved in a political prank."

But that wasn't the only incident. In his campaign to be chairman of the College Republicans in 1973, according to "Bad Boy," Rove taught young Republicans to employ tactics "such as purloining the opposition party's garbage to obtain inside memos and lists of contributors."

Other such tales continued to follow Rove throughout his career, into adulthood. In 1986, Rove worked in Texas for Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Clements. Hours before the only gubernatorial debate, Rove announced to the press that he'd found a bugging device in his office.

Malcolm, a former Republican, recalls the incident. Incumbent Democrat Gov. "Mark White was ahead, and Rove saw an opportunity to throw some dirt out there without any kind of backup and cause a distraction from the campaign."

Indeed, even Rove's current colleague, McKinnon -- then a Democrat -- leveled a similar charge. "If they're blaming us, it's a bunch of bull," said McKinnon, who then worked for White. "It's absolutely outrageous to insinuate that the Mark White campaign had anything to do with it." At another point, McKinnon said, "This thing stinks. I think they were very nervous about the debate."

Odder still, in a May profile of Rove in the New York Times Magazine, Rove gushed about the Sidney Lumet film "Power," admiring a political consultant (Richard Gere), about whom Rove said, "I thought of myself as the Richard Gere character."

In the film, released in 1986, the Gere character finds a bug in his office in the midst of a highly competitive gubernatorial race.

"I don't have any recollection of that," Rove told the Times after the coincidence was pointed out to him.

This isn't even the first time that an FBI probe has occurred in the midst of a Rove-related campaign. In 1990, while Rove was working for Texas state representative Rick Perry, who was running against incumbent Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower, Rove seemed to be privy to information known only to law enforcement officials at the time when he told reporters that Hightower faced "the possibility of indictment." Hightower would later be cleared, though members of the Agriculture Department were sentenced to prison.

At the time, however, Rove's knowledge of the FBI investigation rankled his opponents, who wondered aloud how Rove would know about such a thing.

In a confidential questionnaire he filled out when he was up for a federal post later that year, Rove acknowledged that he had "met with agent Greg Rampton of the Austin FBI office at his request regarding a probe of political corruption in the office of Texas Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower."

A year later, however, when asked by then state Sen. Bob Glasgow whether he made "a claim in there [the questionnaire] that you were involved in the Hightower investigation at the request of special agent Rampton of the Federal Bureau of Investigation," Rove seemed to give a different answer, replying, "No, sir."

When asked if Rampton had "release[d] information to [him] about an ongoing FBI investigation," Rove replied, "Absolutely not."

Malcolm says that all of this paints a picture of Rove as a man willing to play dirty. "And it looks to me like the same kind of game is going on again," she says. "The George Bush campaign is the campaign that will do or say anything to get elected. It amazed me, back when I was a member of the [Texas] Republican Party, it wasn't about fairness, it was about 'We'll do anything it takes.'"

Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer says that it's the Democrats who are proving themselves ruthless. The whole campaign against Rove "shows the Democrats will engage in the politics of personal destruction when there's no basis to it. They invent a lot. It's been a good week for the Democrats to make things up."

One thing Democrats are not making up, though its significance may be nonexistent, is the fact that Rove is the only one of Bush's top four advisors -- including Karen Hughes, Joe Allbaugh and McKinnon -- with whom the FBI has not yet been able to schedule an interview.

"There are only two pieces of hard evidence anybody has," Fleischer cautioned on Monday. "One is that two pieces of information, a debate book and a debate tape, traveled from Point 'A' to Point 'B,' namely, from Austin to Tom Downey's office."

Only one other fact exists in this case, Fleischer argued, and it didn't damn anyone in his camp. "The only other piece of information is that an assistant to [Gore field director] Don Fowler [Jr.] gave an affidavit in which he denied saying anything about a mole, and that affidavit crumbled like blue cheese," Fleischer said.

To Malcolm, what probably happened seems pretty straightforward, though again she makes the charge without a shred of evidence.

"Karl Rove wants to make it look like the Gore campaign has gotten something they're not supposed to have," she says. "He trained in the school of Lee Atwater. He's been with the Bush family for a long time, and he's been playing tricks for a long time. And it just smells."

But Fleischer argues that Democrats alleging that Rove -- or someone acting on Rove's orders -- would send a debate tape and briefing materials in some convoluted attempt to set up a Gore pal is trafficking in pure fantasy.

"It defies logic that anyone loyal to Governor Bush would provide Al Gore with our most sensitive information," he says.

Moreover, incidents from Rove's past are just that, history, Fleischer says, while the Doyne suspension was just Saturday. He then offered some questions he says merit answers from the Gore campaign.

"Who wrote Michael Doyne's affidavit?" Fleischer asks. "Did the Gore campaign write it and ask him to sign it, or did he write it on his own? If he wrote it on his own, then it was an obvious lie. If the Gore campaign wrote it, the question is why? Why write it for him? ... Did members of the Gore campaign read it and approve it? Or, if Doyne did it entirely on his own, then he's in bigger trouble, in which case you have to ask, 'Why is he on a paid vacation?'"

Fleischer goes on to ask even more questions about the incident. "Is it credible to think of Michael Doyne talking about a mole and no one in the Gore campaign heard him? That's the problem with lies, particularly when you lie in an affidavit; they typically don't involve just one person.

"If you or anyone else has any other information, we'd love to hear it," Fleischer says. "But anything else is just people's wild fantasies. Which is why I'm glad the FBI's digging."

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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Al Gore George W. Bush Karl Rove