ON SEPTEMBER 15, Joe Allbaugh, George W. Bush's campaign manager, got a call from the FBI. An agent informed Allbaugh that one of Al Gore's closest advisers, former representative Tom Downey, had received confidential information from the Bush campaign, including a book of internal strategy memos and a videotape of Bush engaged in debate preparation. The materials had arrived at Downey's office in an anonymous package postmarked Austin, Texas. According to Downey's lawyer, Downey looked at the tape and the briefing book only long enough to determine that he shouldn't be looking at them. Then he turned them over to the feds.

Allbaugh was stunned. He knew that very few copies of the video had been made (as it turned out, only three), and that each had been in the possession of a senior Bush adviser. The Downey package suggested a mole in the campaign, or at minimum a dramatic breach of security. Allbaugh immediately met in person with FBI agents in Washington. He told the agents what he knew about the tape. The agents said they would begin an "inquiry" into the matter.

That was more than two weeks ago. In the days since, Bush and Gore have continued their campaigns as before. They have refined their themes, appeared on countless talk shows, and switched places in the polls at least twice. But inside the campaigns, and among the reporters who cover them, the topic of conversation has never changed: Who stole the tape?

A week after Joe Allbaugh first talked to the FBI, there appeared to be an answer. According to an unnamed source quoted in several news stories, the FBI had decided that the tape was most likely mailed by a woman named Yvette Lozano. Lozano was an employee at Maverick Media, the office where Bush's campaign commercials are made, and she made obvious sense as a suspect. She worked for Mark McKinnon, one of the people known to have had a copy of the tape. She was, like McKinnon, a longtime Democrat who once worked for former Texas governor Ann Richards. Presumably she still had friends in Democratic politics. Most damning of all, Lozano had been identified by the FBI in surveillance footage taken in a post office near McKinnon's office on the day the Downey package was mailed. In the footage, Lozano has a package in her hand.

The Bush campaign reacted ferociously to the news that Lozano was a suspect. At a briefing for reporters in Los Angeles last week, spokeswoman Karen Hughes accused "officials connected with the Clinton administration" of distorting the investigation for political purposes. Some "federal law enforcement officials from Washington -- and Washington is where the Clinton administration is headquartered -- are leaking information trying to implicate an innocent person who happens to work for Maverick Media," Hughes charged.

Within hours, the campaign produced receipts that showed Lozano had gone to the post office to return a pair of trousers her boss had ordered from the Gap website. Nevertheless, Lozano was interrogated by FBI agents, who at one point implied that she could be arrested. Her computer was carted off by federal agents. She and McKinnon were fingerprinted twice. Apparently confused and outraged, Lozano offered to take a polygraph test. In an interview with Jackie Judd and Chris Vlasto on ABC News, she even volunteered to place her hand on a Bible and swear her innocence. "I pray a rosary every night," Lozano said. "I pray for the truth to come out."

So far, the truth has not surfaced. But many rumors have, as well as quite a few questions. Here are a few of both:

P Was Yvette Lozano the victim of racial profiling? The Bush campaign has suggested so. From the beginning, Bush aides have pointed out that Lozano is both female and Hispanic. This is true, but what significance does it have? Well, explained one aide last week, it's obvious that the Gore-controlled Justice Department is using Lozano to make the point that Hispanic women don't support Bush.

Stuart Stevens won't go that far. But Stevens, a Bush advertising consultant who has been Mark McKinnon's partner during the campaign, does say he believes the FBI is picking on Lozano because she is relatively powerless. "It certainly is odd," Stevens says, "that the one person they've seized upon is a young Hispanic woman least able to defend herself. This was the kind of thing that used to outrage Democrats: A young Hispanic woman from Austin, Texas, being targeted by powerful forces in Washington."

Another thing Stevens finds odd is how the FBI knew who Yvette Lozano was just from looking at the surveillance tape. "How did they know she worked at Maverick?" Stevens wonders. "They didn't have photographs of our employees."

P Outside the Bush campaign, more questions about Lozano have arisen. At FreeRepublic.com, chat rooms have been filled with discussions of her political background: Was she a member of a Democratic PAC? Has she since converted to Republicanism? What is she doing working for Bush anyway? Late last week a theory began circulating among reporters that Lozano would never have mailed the trousers, since Maverick Media is closer to a Gap outlet than it is to a post office. Stuart Stevens has an answer for this. Lozano had to mail the trousers, he says, because McKinnon had purchased them as part of "an Internet-only special at $ 19.95." (Which, Stevens adds, "is its own scandal.")

P Meanwhile, as the press and public dissect the shopping habits of Bush's staff, why is no one asking questions of the Gore campaign? There has been much speculation that the tape was actually part of an elaborate dirty trick. According to this theory, chief Bush strategist Karl Rove mailed the secret materials to Tom Downey in the hope that Downey would keep them, and later be revealed to be in possession of them.

This may have happened. It is far more likely that the tape was stolen by someone who wanted to help Gore -- by a Democratic partisan. The Gore campaign would seem an obvious place to begin a search for such a person, especially since it was revealed last month that a Gore staffer once bragged to a friend about a "mole" in the Bush campaign. Yet as of the end of last week, the FBI had not interviewed any employees of Gore 2000. The Bush campaign interprets the FBI's behavior as a clear sign of political bias in the Justice Department.

P On the other hand it may be that the FBI has trouble following leads. Shortly after the theft was revealed, Stuart Stevens called the FBI agent in charge of the inquiry and offered to pass on information that might help catch the thief. No one called back. Frustrated, Stevens went on television to complain about the FBI's inaction. A week later, Stevens still hadn't heard from the FBI. "The FBI is not investigating in the way the FBI is capable of investigating," says Stevens, whose father was an FBI agent. "I think they're capable of returning a phone call. This is not Lockerbie, putting pieces of the plane together."

P True. And keeping a campaign office from being burglarized isn't very complicated, either. Almost everyone agrees the Downey tape was probably taken (copied, actually) from the offices of Maverick Media. Adjoining Maverick is a company called Waterworks, a video production house that rents studio time to consultants making commercials. Between the two offices is a door that, thanks to the local fire code, is never locked. Democratic consultants often work at Waterworks. After hours, any one of them could have walked into Maverick and taken the tape, which was apparently left in plain view.

The Bush campaign has known for some time that Maverick Media is not a secure environment. Long before the theft, Stuart Stevens says he insisted on his own, separate office at Maverick, "in part because the whole security thing bothered me so much, to be honest." Why would the Bush campaign allow a debate tape -- "the crown jewels," as one aide describes it -- to lie around unsecured in a place like Maverick Media? Even stranger, why would the campaign admit that it had done something this reckless? As Paul Begala, hardly an unbiased observer, correctly points out, "Voters are not going to say: 'He lost control of his most secret debate secrets, let's make him president.'"

We may never know what happened to the tape. The Bush campaign may never know either, since according to several people employed by it, there has never been a comprehensive internal investigation of the theft. The campaign has since tightened its security. Officials in Austin are confident it could never happen again. But in an environment as small and tightknit as the Bush campaign, where loyalty is prized nearly above all, the suspicion that there is a mole in the next cubicle can be particularly poisonous.

Unless it is solved soon, it is unlikely that the tape affair will reach even footnote status. And this may be what bothers members of the Bush staff more than anything. "If the tape had been sent from Nashville to Austin," says one, "it would be a huge deal."

Tucker Carlson is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

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