The Answer to McConnell's 'Nixonian' Tape Paranoia, from an Office Spy

McConnell is blaming liberals for "bugging" his campaign office and leaking the embarrassing Ashley Judd critiques. According to an expert we spoke with that's possible — but it's almost certainly not the case.

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Mitch McConnell knows who's to blame for leaking a recording of a campaign meeting in which his campaign staff disparaged his non-opponent Ashley Judd: liberals, who McConnell says "bugged" his office "in a Nixonian move." According to an expert we spoke with that's possible — but it's almost certainly not the case.

McConnell and the Republicans have been playing Tuesday's ongoing drama cleverly. The Senate Minority Leader called for an FBI investigation and has been unabashed in using the word "bugged," a word that implies some sort of electronic device was left in the office and recorded or transmitted the conversation to outside observers. (As you can see in the video below, he pointed his finger specifically at Progress Kentucky, a liberal group that earlier this month suggested McConnell's wife's ethnicity prompted the senator's policy choices: "As I indicated," McConnell says in the press conference, "last month they were attacking my wife's ethnicity and then apparently unbeknownst to us at the time they were bugging our headquarters in a Nixonian move." His staff later defused that accusation.)

McConnell's team also wasted no time fundraising off the kerfuffle. Visitors are asked to sign a pledge: "I stand with Senator McConnell against illegal wiretapping"

Meanwhile, Sen. Jerry Moran, who heads up National Republican Senatorial Committee, ratcheted up the Nixon references: "Secret recordings, private conversations leaked, reports of bugs — these Watergate-era tactics have no place in our campaigns," Moran said of a Judd campaign that never really existed. "I am glad to read Senator McConnell’s campaign is working with the Department of Justice and the FBI to find answers."

So was McConnell wiretapped? Or, as others (us) have suggested, was it a leak from a campaign consultant?

The first thing we tried to do was determine where McConnell's campaign offices are. News reports suggested it was on Bishop Lane in Louisville; old records indicated either the building below or a nearly-identical one across the street. A call to the campaign office confirmed the address, but not the location inside the building.

We spoke with Frank James, a private investigator with 1st Class Investigations out of Connecticut — though it seems likely that James himself was from an outer borough of New York. How easy would it be for a spy to record conversations in an office? "Very simple."

James outlined how it could work. His first idea was a small device hidden under a table in the meeting room. We asked if that wouldn't be found, and he replied, "Not too many people crawl under tables at meetings."

True. But surely the McConnell team would have searched the room by now. Well, James offered, maybe someone in the room had a pen with a recording device in it. Or glasses. A watch. Person walks in, attends the meeting, walks out with the whole thing recorded.

We suggested that it was unlikely that someone from Progress Kentucky would be invited to a strategy meeting. What other options were there? James indicated that you could put a device in the ceiling or in a light. It could be placed and left there, broadcasting audio or video within a short range; say, to a car in the parking lot. Which would make it much easier to detect. James' firm does sweeps of offices and homes for exactly such devices. While he doesn't find as many as people might think, he does find them.

In short, then, it's trivial to record a conversation. But it is very hard to do so without the device being detected for long — and if McConnell were actually concerned that his office had been bugged, he'd have a crew like Frank James's out there today, holding up whatever device was located in front of every camera he could find. (Update, 10:17 p.m.: As Mother Jones' Clara Jeffery notes, NBC News reported tonight that a sweep of the office turned up no devices.)

But first the device would have to get there. McConnell accused his opponents of using "Nixonian" tactics — a weird pejorative from a prominent Republican, but one meant to evoke the break-in at the Democratic Party's offices in the Watergate hotel in 1972. That break-in occurred in the middle of the night and was foiled when the burglars were detected by a complex security guard.

It's an apt analogy. Such a break-in is presumably the only way someone could have put a device in the campaign's conference room. Given the provocative nature of the leaked conversation, the room was clearly private and at least somewhat secure. It would be a room almost certainly not easily accessed by the public — particularly if the public is trying to install electronics behind a ceiling tile. Even pretending to be a representatives of the phone company has proven difficult in previous circumstances.

Access to the room is a problem — but it's also one that significantly raises the stakes. There's a big difference between setting up a camera while you're tending bar and violating breaking and entering laws on the off-chance that you'll record a politically interesting conversation. Particularly if you do so knowing that you're leaving evidence behind: the recording device.

Yes, as Frank James indicates, it's easy to record and transmit a conversation. But it's not easy to do it in a facility that's at all secure and without getting caught. The expert who can probably shed the most light on McConnell's claims, though, isn't James, it's Occam. Which is more likely: that a local progressive group broke into McConnell's campaign headquarters and left a sophisticated listening device, spending hours or days in a van in the parking lot monitoring its contents until it had something worthy of passing to Mother Jones — or someone recording the conversation as part of his job accidentally or intentionally let it fall into the magazine's hands?

If you said the former, there's someone who'd be happy if you signed his pledge and maybe made a small contribution.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.