Bush aide says she's confident videotape not taken by staff, says probe leak 'inappropriate'

Saturday, September 23rd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Campaign aides to George W. Bush say they are confident a videotape of their candidate preparing to debate Al Gore didn't come from their staff, but a federal law enforcement official says early evidence suggests the tape came from a person in the Bush camp.

``We do not know who took our materials,'' Bush communications director Karen Hughes said. ``I'm confident it's not anyone authorized to have access to those materials.''

Further investigation is needed to confirm a link to anybody with ties to Bush, the federal official said.

Asked who had access to the sessions and the tapes, Hughes said only herself, campaign chairman Don Evans, campaign manager Joe Allbaugh, chief strategy adviser Karl Rove, media consultant Mark McKinnon and issues adviser Josh Bolton.

``It is completely inappropriate and wrong for the Justice Department to play politics by leaking information in the midst of a presidential campaign,'' said Hughes. ``The only people interested in helping Al Gore prepare for a debate are people who support Al Gore, not people who support Governor Bush.''

On Sept. 13, a package arrived at the Washington office of former Rep. Thomas Downey, who has been helping Gore prepare for upcoming debates. The package had a postmark of Austin, Texas _ where the Bush campaign is based _ but Downey didn't recognize the sender's name.

Democratic sources said at the time that Downey told associates he saw Republican Bush in what appeared to be a mock debate with Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., who is serving as Gore's stand-in during Bush debate preparations. The package also contained documents.

Downey turned the materials over to the FBI, which began a preliminary inquiry to see, among other things, whether there was any evidence that federal law had been violated.

That early inquiry produced the tentative identification, but investigators do not believe it is solidly confirmed yet, and are conducting more tests on the material and continuing the investigation, said a law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Bush spokeswoman Hughes said any suggestion the FBI has a suspect within the Bush campaign is contrary to what campaign officials were told as recently as Friday night by FBI field agents in Austin, Texas.

The agents ``told our campaign manager it would be premature to draw any conclusions about who provided videotape and debate information to the Al Gore campaign,'' Hughes said.

She said campaign manager Allbaugh planned to call FBI Director Louis Freeh ``to complain that if they have identified a suspect, Governor Bush would like to know.''

She said the purloined tape seems to be from a session during the Democratic convention. It was made at Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, she said, noting that ``very few (copies of the tape) were made.''

FBI and Justice Department officials are still trying to determine if a federal statute has been violated. One possible federal violation might be theft from a federally financed activity, and the Bush campaign might qualify because it has accepted public funding.

However, the evidence might point instead to a state violation, perhaps simple theft.

The official refused to divulge the name of the person tentatively identified but said the early evidence appeared so far to point to someone in the Bush camp.

The incident unsettled the famously loyal Bush campaign apparatus, which has seen the GOP nominee slip in some polls and struggle to stay on message since the Democratic convention in August.