McConnell Campaign Seeks FBI Probe of Secret Tape

Senator Mitch McConnell wishes to know how "Mother Jones" obtained an audio recording of a private meeting where aides ripped potential opponent Ashley Judd

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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks to the press after the weekly Senate Republicans policy luncheon on March 19, 2013 in Washington, D.C.

Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell’s re-election campaign has asked the FBI to investigate how a liberal magazine obtained an audio recording of a private strategy meeting in which aides discussed how to defeat Ashley Judd if the actress ran against McConnell next year.

The tape, released Tuesday on the website of Mother Jones magazine, captures McConnell and a cadre of aides discussing the possibility of attacking Judd for her mental health, her views on religion and gender issues, and a range of policy positions. According to Mother Jones, the recording is of a Feb. 2 meeting at the Louisville headquarters of McConnell’s re-election campaign. At the time, Judd, a Democrat, was mulling a challenge to the Republican Senate leader, who faces re-election in 2014. She has since decided not to run.

Jesse Benton, McConnell’s campaign manager, told TIME the meeting consisted of “a very small group of senior strategists,” and dismissed the possibility that someone in the room could have leaked the recording.

(MORE: Ashley Judd Targeted in Withering New Ad)

“We’ve always said the left would stop at nothing to attack Sen. McConnell, but Watergate-style tactics to bug campaign headquarters are above and beyond,” Benton said in a statement. “Senator McConnell’s campaign is working with the FBI and has notified the local U.S. Attorney in Louisville, per FBI request, about these recordings. Obviously a recording device of some kind was placed in Senator McConnell’s campaign office without consent. By whom and how that was accomplished presumably will be the subject of a criminal investigation.”

The recording captures a presentation at which aides review opposition research of Judd’s personal history and policy positions. McConnell’s voice is heard on the tape, describing the process as the “Whac-A-Mole period” of the campaign. “When anybody sticks their head up, do them out,” he seems to say.

Mining a potential opponent’s past statements for damaging nuggets is standard procedure for any campaign, though the secret recording lays bare how brutal the process can be. The tape captures McConnell aides noting Judd’s hospitalization for mental-health reasons and playing a clip in which the actress describes feeling unsettled by airport stimuli after returning from a trip abroad. “She’s clearly — this sounds extreme — but she is emotionally unbalanced,” a McConnell aide says on the tape. “She’s suffered some suicidal tendencies. She was hospitalized for 42 days when she had a mental breakdown in the ’90s.”

(MORE: The Gentlemen From Kentucky: Inside the Partnership of Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell)

On the recording, McConnell aides describe Judd as a carpetbagger with homes in Tennessee, San Francisco and Scotland, and argue that her positions on issues ranging from coal to gay marriage are out of step with voters in the conservative Bluegrass State. They attack her for being “anti” the “traditional American family,” as well as for her pro-choice stance and her views on motherhood and gender. “She described having children as selfish, and she thinks it’s unconscionable to breed,” says a McConnell adviser, who goes on to add that Judd is “critical … of traditional Christianity. She sort of views it as sort of a vestige of patriarchy.”

Asked by reporters at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday whether Judd’s mental-health struggles should be out of bounds, McConnell twice ducked the question, noting that a liberal group in his state had targeted the ethnicity of his wife, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, who was born in Taiwan. He suggested the same group, a little-known Democratic super PAC called Progress Kentucky, was behind the taping. “Last month my wife’s ethnicity was attacked by a left-wing group in Kentucky,” McConnell said. “Now they also apparently bugged my headquarters.” McConnell called the tactic “Nixonian,” but did not address the question of Judd’s mental health.

This is not the first time that Mother Jones, which says the tape was provided by a source who requested anonymity, has obtained an incendiary record of a secret meeting. Last fall, reporter David Corn, author of the publication’s story about the McConnell meeting, posted a surreptitiously taped video of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney blasting the “47%” of Americans dependent on the government during a $50,000-per-plate fundraiser at a Boca Raton estate. The tape, leaked by a catering-company employee who was working at the event, was a decisive factor in Romney’s November loss to Barack Obama.

Updated, 3:10 p.m.