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SF-Based Mother Jones Obtains Secret Tape Of Sen. McConnell Plotting Against Ashley Judd

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS News) -- Months after Mitt Romney was secretly taped at a fundraiser maligning the "47 percent" of Americans who don't pay income taxes, Mother Jones, the same San Francisco-based publication that unveiled that now-infamous clip that changed the trajectory of Romney's candidacy, is out with another secret tape: This time of a meeting between U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., an embattled four-term senator who faces a tough re-election battle next year, and his campaign aides.

The tape, which according to Mother Jones magazine was recorded on February 2 and provided to the publication by a source who required anonymity, captures the senator's aides discussing opposition research on Ashley Judd, the actress and activist who was at the time considering challenging McConnell for his Senate seat. (She has since decided not to run.) Among the topics presented as possible campaign fodder include Judd's struggle with depression, her religious views, and the fact that her grandmother allegedly once called her an "out-of-touch, Hollywood liberal."

"You know, she's suffered some suicidal tendencies," said an aide in the room who appeared to be presenting the opposition research findings, per the tape. "She was hospitalized for 42 days when she had a mental breakdown in the '90s. Phil Maxson found this, which sort of I think is a pretty revealing interview."

Judd had previously revealed in her 2011 autobiography, "All That Is Bitter and Sweet," that she had thoughts of suicide and bouts with depression when she was younger.

On the tape, the presenter plays an interview in which Judd spoke of being overwhelmed upon returning to the U.S. from an overseas trip.

"I call it the American anesthesia. You know, I come back to this country. I freak out in airports. The colors, the sounds, all those different ways of packaging the same snack but trying to, you know, make it look like it's distinct and different and convince consumers that they have to have it," she says in the interview. "I mean all of that. The last time I came home from a trip, I absolutely flipped out when I saw pink fuzzy socks on a rack. I mean, I can never anticipate what is going to push me over the edge."

"So pink fuzzy socks are of concern," the aide said to laughter, after playing the clip. "So, that's sort of the tip of the iceberg. Like I said, you know, we're still drilling down and there's a wealth of material, and it's just hard to get all the way around it."

The McConnell campaign strategists also mocked Judd for her views on religion, per a recording in which she talked about having to "expand my God concept from time to time."

"You know particularly I enjoy native faith practices, and have a very nature-based God concept. I'd like to think I'm like St. Francis in that way. Brother Donkey, Sister Bird," she says in a recording played during the meeting.

"Brother Donkey, Sister Bird!" the presenter said to laughter.

"The people at Southeast Christian [Church] would take to the streets with pitchforks," a male voice added.

"Brother...That's my favorite line so far. Absolute favorite one so far," the presenter said.

Mother Jones points out that Judd's "Brother Donkey, Sister Bird" comment refers to well-known stories about St. Francis, a Catholic saint.

During the conversation, aides also touched on Judd's generally liberal political views, her support for President Obama, her out-of-state residences, and her family values -- all pretty standard discussion topics for a potentially high-profile campaign. The aides made it clear they believed they had plenty of fodder with which to go after the actress if she decided to get in the race.

Mother Jones reports McConnell was present during the meeting and stayed silent for the presentation. However, he did open the meeting by saying that this early period of his re-election campaign "is the Whac-A-Mole period of the campaign...when anybody sticks their head up, do them out."

In a statement, a spokesperson for Judd blasted the "politics of personal destruction" she said "embody Mitch McConnell and are pervasive in Washington DC."

"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," Cara Tripicchio, Judd's spokeswoman, told CBS News in an email. "Every day it becomes clearer how much we need change in Washington from this kind of rhetoric and actions."

Jesse Benton, a McConnell campaign adviser, blasted "the left" for what he called "Nixonian tactics" in acquiring the recording.

"We've always said the left would stop at nothing to attack Sen. McConnell but Nixonian tactics to bug campaign headquarters is above and beyond," he told CBS News in an email. "This is Watergate tactics."

Benton said the campaign is "working with the FBI" to discern the source of the recording, and he suggested there might be a subsequent criminal investigation.

"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," Benton told CBS News." Obviously a recording device of some kind was placed in Senator McConnell's campaign office without consent. By whom and how that was accomplished will presumably be the subject of a criminal investigation."

Mother Jones released a statement noting that while the publication was "not involved in the making of the tape," it was "our understanding that the tape was not the product of a Watergate-style bugging operation."

"We are still waiting for Sen. Mitch McConnell to comment on the substance of the story," the Mother Jones statement reads. "Before posting this article, 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 the tape by a source who wished to remain anonymous. We were not involved in the making of the tape, but we published a story on the tape due to its obvious newsworthiness."

(© 2013 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

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