Human T-cell leukemia virus type I (HTLV-I) encodes a strong transcriptional activator, Tax, that stimulates transcription indirectly through the viral long terminal repeat and also activates a number of cellular genes via association with host transcription factors. The NF-kappa B/Rel pathway is a target for Tax trans-activation, and Tax has been correlated with increased NF-kappa B-binding activity and NF-kappa B-dependent gene expression in HTLV-I-infected cells. In this study we demonstrate that constitutive phosphorylation and increased turnover of the regulatory I kappa B alpha protein in HTLV-I-infected MT-2 and C8166 cells and Tax-expressing 19D cells contribute to constitutive NF-kappa B-binding activity, which consists primarily of c-Rel, p52(NFKB2), and p50(NFKB1). I kappa B alpha mRNA expression is also increased 7- to 20-fold in these cells, although the steady-state level of I kappa B alpha protein is reduced in HTLV-I-infected and Tax-expressing T cells. These results indicate that the viral Tax protein, by indirectly mediating phosphorylation of I kappa B, may target I kappa B alpha for rapid degradation, thus leading to constitutive NF-kappa B activity.