FBI investigate secret recording of US Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell planning mental health smear of opponent and actress Ashley Judd

McConnell's campaign team claim the recording is the result of bugging from the political left

The FBI is investigating whether a secret recording of a senior US senator and his campaign discussing how to take down potential political opponent and actress Ashley Judd was obtained illegally.

The recording, which exposes the cut-throat nature of US political campaigns, hears Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell discussing ways to exploit Ms Judd's previous problems with depression at a meeting in February at his Louisville campaign headquarters. Ms Judd later decided not to run for Mr McConnell's Kentucky seat.

Mr McConnell and his team claim that the recording, released this week by Mother Jones magazine, was the result of illegal bugging by his opponents and the FBI is now looking into how it was obtained.

In the tape, one of Mr McConnell's aides  can be heard saying: "She's clearly — this sounds extreme — but she is emotionally unbalanced.

"I mean it's been documented ... she's suffered some suicidal tendencies. She was hospitalized for 42 days when she had a mental breakdown in the '90s."

Mr McConnell had earlier said in the meeting that the campaign had now entered "the Whac-A-Mole period... when anybody sticks their head up, do them out," in reference to the arcade game, in which players use a mallet to strike plastic moles that pop out of holes.

The team also attacked Ms Judd's beliefs, playing a recording about her evolving faith, which apparently now includes native faith practises.

Following loud laughter from the aides an unidentified man says "the people at Southeast Christian would take to the streets with pitchforks," referring to an evangelical megachurch in Louisville.

Ms Judd has been open about her battle with depression in the past and last month spoke to the American Counseling Association's national convention in Cincinnati, telling more than 3,000 counsellors from across America about her experiences.

Ms Judd's spokeswoman, Cara Tripicchio, criticized the McConnell campaign for considering making it a campaign issue. 

"This is yet another example of the politics of personal destruction that embody Mitch McConnell and are pervasive in Washington, DC," Tripicchio said in a statement. "We expected nothing less from Mitch McConnell and his camp than to take a personal struggle such as depression, which many Americans cope with on a daily basis, and turn it into a laughing matter."

Mr McConnell was asked several times at a news conference yesterday about the about the propriety of attacking Ms Judd over depression. He did not directly answer, but repeatedly brought up an incident last month, when left-wing group Progress Kentucky tweeted an insensitive remark about his wife, before directly claiming the responsibility for the alleged bugging lay with them.

"As you know, my wife's ethnicity was attacked by a left-wing group in Kentucky and apparently they also bugged my headquarters," he said. "So I think that pretty well sums up the way the political left is operating in Kentucky."

Mother Jones magazine claim the recording was supplied to them by an anonymous source and that it was their understanding that bugging was not involved.

The magazine's Washington bureau chief David Corn said in a statement: "We are still waiting for Senator Mitch McConnell to comment on the substance of the article," the statement said. "Before posting, we contacted his Senate office and his campaign office — in particular, his campaign manager, Jesse Benton — and no one responded. As the story makes clear, we were recently provided with the tape by a source who wishes to remain anonymous. We published the article on the tape due to its obvious newsworthiness.

Corn continued, "We were not involved in the making of the tape, but it is our understanding that the tape was not the product of any kind of bugging operation. We cannot comment beyond that, except to say that under the circumstances, our publication of the article is both legal and protected by the First Amendment [freedom of speech and the press]."