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This 'Mole' Can Undermine a Presidential Campaign

October 03, 2000|JAMES P. PINKERTON | James P. Pinkerton, who writes a column for Newsday in New York, worked in the White House of President George Bush. E-mail:

If you hear a joke about a "mole" in the first presidential debate tonight, it won't be funny. Unlike the subliminal "RATS" and arthritic dogs that will serve as the answers to future trivia contests, the mole story is no molehill--it's a mountain with an avalanche waiting to tumble.

Some background: On Sept. 13, Tom Downey, a former Democratic congressman now living in Washington, received a package in the mail postmarked Austin, Texas--home to the Bush campaign. Inside was a videotape of a Bush debate practice session and some written materials. Downey, who had been slated to help Gore in his debate preparation, turned the package, complete with phony return address, over to the FBI.

On Sept. 22, it was revealed that a Nashville-based Gore campaign staffer, Michael Doyne, had been bragging that he had a "mole" inside the Bush campaign. He was suspended--with pay--the next day. Doyne signed a Gore-campaign-composed affidavit asserting that while, yes, he had claimed to have a spy in Bushland, he was, in truth, lying.

The Bush campaign demanded an investigation. And they got one. The FBI began investigating--the Bush campaign. Evidently, the FBI believes that the Doyne case is a dead end; that it's just a coincidence that Doyne was bragging about a Bush mole at the same time the Bush campaign was being moled. Or was it?

News reports over the weekend, originating from Washington-based leakers, suggest that the FBI is focusing on Yvette Lozano, a staffer at Maverick Media, the outfit doing the advertising for the Bush campaign. Forensic evidence, starting with security camera footage of her at an Austin post office, pointed to Lozano as the mailer of the package to Downey. She denies it, asserting that she was merely shipping a pair of pants.

Lozano has an interesting history. She is described by a former employer, a Democratic state legislator, as a "liberal Democrat."

Making things more interesting, she reportedly was fired from another job in the Texas Legislature after lying to her boss about a minor item. Which leads people to ask if she might be a still-loyal Democrat trying to do her party a favor, or whether, as "federal officials" are said to believe, she might have been acting at the behest of someone else in the Republican presidential campaign.

And that's the really mountainous charge: that Lozano did it, and that she was following orders. But whose orders? Could it be those of Mark McKinnon, the head of Maverick Media, himself a former Democrat, who has staunchly defended Lozano, even as the Bush campaign has backed away from her? Could the Bushies, some of them, anyway, have sent the package to Downey to entrap him, or to somehow disrupt the ongoing debate negotiations, at a time when Bush seemed none too eager to debate Al Gore? Or could the Gore campaign, Doyne or no Doyne, still be involved somehow?

But let's pause for a moment here. The key to interpreting the case is the proper understanding of the FBI's role. Normally, one might wait for formal legal action before trying to render some sort of judgment, but these aren't normal times. There's an election in 35 days. So which FBI is it? Is it a team of technically proficient professionals who have determined that Doyne didn't know diddly? Or is it a bunch of overzealous investigators trying to railroad Lozano, just as they tried to frame the innocent Richard Jewell and the less innocent Wen Ho Lee? Or is the bureau a crew of politicized stooges for Janet Reno, who have found a way to cripple the Bush campaign with questions, searches and leaks?

If the answer to that last question is "yes," then the plan has worked; Bush and his campaigners are surely being distracted from the prime directive of debating, and then beating, Gore.

But whatever the truth of Molegate, it likely will emerge by election day. Conspiracies are hard enough to keep secret in the best of times; the worst of times is when hundreds of investigators, thousands of reporters and millions of voters are probing and watching. In such a pressure cooker, something will blow, and when it does, a presidential campaign will likely be blown out of the water.

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