THE leader of the Republican Party in the US Senate is at the centre of a bugging scandal after his campaign staff were recorded discussing how to smear the actress Ashley Judd, a potential political opponent.
Senator Mitch McConnell was taped during a strategy meeting in February where aides suggested attacking Judd as "emotionally unbalanced" because of her history of mental health issues.
The FBI is investigating how the recording was made and who released it to the liberal magazine 'Mother Jones'.
The 11-minute tape captures part of a meeting at Mr McConnell's campaign headquarters where his staff suggest ways to discourage Judd from running as a Democrat in her home state of Kentucky.
"She's clearly, this sounds extreme, but she is emotionally unbalanced," one aide says of the star, adding that she had "suffered some suicidal tendencies".
"She was hospitalised for 42 days when she had a mental breakdown in the 1990s," the aide continued.
Mr McConnell is heard only once on the tape, when he compares the campaign to the fairground game of Whac-A-Mole. "When anybody sticks their head up, do them out," the Republican majority leader orders his campaign team.
Judd has since announced that she will not run, making it all but certain that the 71-year-old Mr McConnell will be elected to a sixth term in November 2014.
Following the disclosure of the tape, Ms Judd said: "We expected nothing less from Mitch McConnell and his camp to take a personal struggle such as depression, which many Americans cope with on a daily basis, and turn it into a laughing matter."
When challenged on the ethics of attacking an opponent's mental health, Mr McConnell dismissed the recording as a "Nixonian move" by liberal groups.
"Last week they were attacking my wife's ethnicity, and apparently also bugging my headquarters, much like Nixon and Watergate," Mr McConnell said. "That's what the political left does these days."
Mr McConnell was referring to much-criticised tweets by the liberal group Progress Kentucky, suggesting that he had supported shipping jobs to China because his wife was born in Taiwan.
The recording of Mr McConnell's campaign meeting was released on Tuesday by 'Mother Jones', the magazine that published the infamous "47pc" tape, where Mitt Romney told wealthy donors that many of President Barack Obama's supporters were welfare dependents and would never vote for him.
The comments were credited with helping to sink his presidential ambitions.
'Mother Jones' has refused to discuss the source of the McConnell recording, saying only that its release had been approved by the magazine's lawyers.
The FBI yesterayconfirmed that it had opened an investigation into the possibility that the recording was made illegally.
"We can confirm that Sen McConnell's office reported this matter to us and we are looking into it," said Paul Bresson, an FBI spokesman.
"We are reviewing the tape to determine if any federal laws were violated." (© Daily Telegraph, London)