Bush Aides Cry Foul Over Debate Tape Investigation

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Karen Hughes says Justice is playing politics

Bush campaign officials are accusing the Reno Justice Department of blatant partisanship by leaking a story that FBI investigators have focused on someone inside the Bush camp as a likely suspect in the case of who mailed a sensitive Bush debate preparation videotape and documents to the Gore campaign. Reacting furiously to an Associated Press story that moved very early Saturday morning, Bush communications director Karen Hughes told reporters that campaign manager Joe Allbaugh has called FBI director Louis Freeh to complain that "it is completely inappropriate and wrong for the Justice Department to play politics by leaking information in the midst of a presidential campaign."

Hughes said that FBI agents based in Austin had assured Allbaugh that they had come to no conclusions about the identity of the guilty party. She suggested that someone in the political ranks of the Justice Department put out an erroneous story fingering the Bush camp in order to deflect suspicion from Gore loyalists who may somehow have purloined the tape and documents. "The only people interested in helping Al Gore prepare for a debate are people who support Al Gore, not people who support Governor Bush," she said.

In Washington, FBI and Justice officials flatly denied the assertion that, as AP put it, "FBI agents believe they know who sent" the videotape and documents. AP's source, says one senior investigator, "is someone who doesn't have a precise grasp of what's going on."

In fact, officials familiar with the case say, the FBI investigation is only in its preliminary stages and has not progressed beyond the compilation of a short list of Bush campaign officials who were authorized to have access to the specific tape and documents that Gore adviser Tom Downey says arrived unsolicited in his mail on Sept. 13. The list does not include the larger universe of persons who may have had unauthorized access to the campaign material in question — lower-level campaign aides, volunteers, couriers, employees at copying or tape duplicating services, family and friends of campaign officials and so forth. FBI officials say that until they conduct a full field criminal investigation, they cannot compile a complete roster of all those who could have been in a position to filch the tape and papers, and, unless somebody blurts out a confession, it will take much more work to winnow the evidence.

A full field investigation won't be launched until the Justice Department's Public Integrity section greenlights it, based on a conclusion that some federal criminal law may have been broken. "We are the Federal Bureau of Investigation and we conduct criminal investigations," as one veteran agent puts it. "Somebody probably ought to investigate it. It's unethical, it's offensive and there may be an FEC violation here. But is it a criminal violation?"

Justice lawyers aren't sure. The call would be easy if there were evidence of a black-bag job or illegal bugging. Those are slam-dunk felonies. Though Bush loyalists are peddling rumors of a possible break-in at the campaign or an advertising agency, they haven't presented the FBI with evidence that any such thing happened. Agents have come up with no evidence to suggest the tape that reached Downey was made by illegal clandestine surveillance equipment.

So, for the moment, Justice lawyers are mulling whether there's a potential violation of section 666 of Title 18 of the U.S. criminal code. This provision outlaws theft from programs receiving federal funds. But it's a stretch to call a political campaign that receives matching funds a "federal program." Besides, Section 666 covers thefts of $5,000 or more.

In the meantime, the tape and papers received by Downey are locked it away in the tightly secured evidence control room at the FBI Washington field office at Fourth and G Streets Northwest in downtown Washington. FBI agents in Washington and Austin have been told to take a few logical first steps to nail down basic information about what the tape and documents consist of, how many copies exist, what equipment made the original and purloined videotapes, and who had legitimate access to the stuff during the normal course of the campaign. The list of names arising from that process, says one official, "doesn't mean anything."