By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"I did not know anything about Barnes when I called," says O'Donnell. "We had a long conversation. He said he wanted to be helpful to the Bush campaign and that he knew things about POW issues and Ross Perot. He mentioned Richard Armitage and said that he had information that Bush was going to be ambushed on CNN over an issue with Armitage. But the more I probed, the less reliable I thought he was. By the end of the conversation, I was convinced this fellow was a waste of time, and I closed the book on the matter."
But Barnes, ever persistent, called O'Donnell several more times, sometimes catching him answering his phone directly. Once he left a message--"Urgent"--and O'Donnell returned the call, only to find the conversation was again useless.
"I could not figure out what he was doing at the time," recalls O'Donnell. "It was apparent to me that he was playing a game, and I didn't know what his game was, but I knew I wanted nothing to do with it."
Barnes was also tenacious enough to get through to David Tell, the Republican director of opposition research. Tell says that he expressed no interest in Barnes' information.
Barnes did not tell [BBCreporter] David Taylor about his conversations with Republican officials until late April. However, in Barnes' version, the Republicans had called him. Oberwetter was the first, he said. Barnes claimed they wanted compromising information about Perot and asked him to tell them what he knew about Perot and POWs and MIAs.
Barnes recalls that Taylor was "very excited" by this news, and told Barnes that Oberwetter "was Bush's No. 1 man and Perot's No. 1 enemy." Taylor, of course, personally knew of the bad blood between Perot and Bush over the POW issue. He knew that U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey was planning a special hearing during the summer about POWs and MIAs, and that Perot was one of the invited witnesses.
Taylor hypothesized that since Perot had access to many of the government's classified documents about the POW issue, he might have collected information that could embarrass Bush and other top administration officials. Therefore, when Barnes told him that Republican officials were seeking damaging information about Perot, it made sense to Taylor. The Republicans might go to extraordinary lengths, Taylor thought, to discover what explosive information Perot had and what he might disclose at the upcoming Kerrey hearings.
By early May, Taylor had convinced the BBC to let him interview Perot as part of a segment for the evening newscasts. Because of his conversations with Barnes, Taylor also thought this simple news interview could expand into an explosive story.
In mid-May, Perot met with Taylor for his BBC interview. For the first time, Perot learned of Barnes' charges about the Republicans. That trip also gave Taylor an opportunity to verify whether Barnes' primary claim--that he was talking to Jim Oberwetter--was true.
Taylor had arranged an interview with Oberwetter by claiming that he was doing a general documentary about the American presidential race. He then told Barnes to call Oberwetter during that interview so that Taylor could film Oberwetter's reaction.
When Taylor arrived at the Hunt Oil offices for his May 13 meeting, he was kept in the reception area for a few minutes and then taken by a receptionist to Oberwetter's office. As Taylor and his film crew neared the office, he heard the last seconds of a conversation.
"I can't talk," said Oberwetter. "I have British television outside."
During the interview, Barnes did not call. Afterward, Taylor called him and asked why not. "I did call, and you were there, weren't you?" Barnes told him. "How did you know I was there?" Taylor asked. Barnes responded, "Well, he told me you were outside."
"I was surprised," says Taylor, "that the head of the Republican campaign was talking to Barnes about anything."
Taylor and Perot thought that snippet of a conversation confirmed Barnes' claim that he was regularly talking with Oberwetter and other Republican officials. Barnes added to the allure by suggesting that he had called Oberwetter on a private number (he had not, and Taylor did not check the existence of such a number). Moreover, if either Taylor or Perot had asked Barnes for his telephone bill, they would have discovered that Barnes' May 13 call, at 11:10 in the morning in Dallas (just as Taylor walked into the office), lasted less than one minute. It was also the only call from Barnes to Oberwetter's office that month.
During the next several weeks, Barnes and Taylor continued speaking by telephone. In early June, Barnes said he was in touch with more important Republicans, including Bob Teeter (Barnes did reach Teeter, briefly, one time). Although he only had Barnes' word for the calls, Taylor was impressed. "He was no longer talking to flunkies," says Taylor. "If I can't get through to Bob Teeter, what on earth is Scott Barnes doing getting through to Teeter?...What the hell was going on?"
The Democratic convention started on Monday, July 13, and Taylor covered it for the BBC. During the next three days, he received several telephone messages at his hotel from Barnes. He was too busy to return the calls. Perot later told 60 Minutes that it was during those three days that he received a "call from a person who I respect who said that there was a plan to have a computer-created false photo of my daughter Carolyn that they were going to give the press shortly before her wedding to embarrass her."