Tales of the Bush Debate Tape

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Chief Bush strategist Karl Rove

One of the legacies of Watergate is that even the hint of skulduggery during a presidential campaign snowballs into a political scandal — often before anything resembling the truth is known. In the two weeks since a videotape and more than 100 pages of George W. Bush's debate preparation material landed on the desk of one of Al Gore's closest advisers — who turned them over to the FBI — rumors, fanciful tales and flat-out fabrications about who was behind the caper have whizzed between the two campaigns and the press rooms of the world. The facts have been on holiday. Except at the FBI, where agents have been quietly interviewing the handful of top Bush aides who had access to the material. Oddly, one senior Bush adviser who hadn't been interviewed as of Saturday afternoon was chief campaign strategist Karl Rove. That fact alone started a new torrent of speculation.

The storm intensified with reports that the FBI had identified a suspect within the Bush campaign. That cued Austin to counter indignantly with its own unfounded accusation — that the Clinton-Gore Justice Department was leaking lies in order to sow mistrust and chaos in the Bush campaign. "We remain absolutely confident that this act was committed by someone outside the campaign," a senior Bush aide told TIME Saturday. "We are confident that [the] evidence will ultimately bear that out."

In Goreland, they were sweating their own scandal. Gore officials suspended a mid-level aide who admitted to ABC News that he had boasted to a friend that the vice president's operation had a mole feeding them information from inside the Bush campaign. The 28-year-old aide insisted he had been joking, and no evidence has surfaced linking him to either the debate prep material or anything else funneled from Austin.

What makes the whole circus all the more silly is that FBI investigators are still not sure a federal crime has been committed. The only plausible one they could come up with — theft from a federally financed activity — is so much of a stretch that it might not apply: It's hard to argue, after all, that the papers and tape are valuable enough to trigger the statute, which requires that the stolen material be worth more than $5,000.