WASHINGTON -- The FBI said it was looking into allegations by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell that political opponents bugged his campaign headquarters.
Mr. McConnell, R-Ky., blamed the "political left" for an anonymous recording of a meeting at his campaign headquarters that appeared Tuesday morning on the website of the liberal magazine Mother Jones. The recording captures Mr. McConnell and his aides outlining possible attacks on potential Senate campaign challengers, especially actress Ashley Judd.
"They were bugging our headquarters, quite a Nixonian move," Mr. McConnell said at a news conference Tuesday. "This is what you get from the political left in America these days."
As yet, Mr. McConnell faces no serious challenge to his seat, but the 12-minute recording of a Feb. 2 meeting in Louisville suggests that his team was ready with opposition research gathered by aides. "This is the Whac-A-Mole period of the campaign," the senator said on the recording. "When anybody sticks their head up, do them out."
Ms. Judd's head was up, so to speak, amid speculation that she would run against him in 2014. Along with comments that could mark her as a "carpetbagger" and an "out-of-touch, Hollywood liberal," aides found fodder for more personal attacks.
"This sounds extreme, but she is emotionally unbalanced," said one man, who cited her confessions of suicidal tendencies in an autobiography.
The group laughed at an interview in which Ms. Judd, in an apparent critique of U.S. consumerism upon her return from overseas, remarked, "I absolutely flipped out when I saw pink fuzzy socks on a rack."
In March, Ms. Judd announced that she would not run for the Kentucky seat.
Her spokeswoman on Tuesday criticized Mr. McConnell for making depression a "laughing matter." And Ms. Judd herself condemned the substance of the campaign staff recording as "yet another example of the politics of personal destruction that embody Mitch McConnell and are pervasive in Washington."
But Republicans asserted that it was the "wiretap" of the session that went too far. "This 'Anything to win: Laws and rules be damned' mentality has to stop," said Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran, the National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman.
Guy Cecil, executive director of the Senate Democrats' campaign arm, shot back that the organization "doesn't know if this tape came from a disgruntled Senate staffer, who was forced to dig up dirt on their boss' potential opponents, or another source."
A spokeswoman for the FBI's Louisville division said it was "looking into" the complaints from Mr. McConnell's office.
Mother Jones stood by the report by David Corn, who also published the recording last year of unsuccessful Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's "47 percent" comments dismissing a substantial part of the electorate during a private fundraiser in Florida.
Without revealing its source for the McConnell recording, the magazine said, "It is our understanding that the tape was not the product of a Watergate-style bugging operation."
In the recording, McConnell aides acknowledged that they had less material on another potential Democratic challenger to the senator, Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky's secretary of state.
David Adams, a Tea Party activist in Kentucky, said Mr. McConnell's concern about threats from the left was misplaced. "It's going to come from the right," said Mr. Adams, who is seeking a conservative opponent to face the Senate GOP leader in a primary. "The fact that he's coming unglued about this thing should make clear to observers that he may not be ready for the challenge that lies ahead."
Tuesday afternoon, the senator's campaign solicited cash and volunteers to "stand with Senator McConnell against illegal wiretapping."
The Washington Post contributed.