The Bush administration has dozens of intercepts of Mohamed ElBaradei's phone calls with Iranian diplomats and is scrutinizing them in search of ammunition to oust him as director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, according to three U.S. government officials.
But the diplomatic offensive will not be easy. The administration has failed to come up with a candidate willing to oppose ElBaradei, who has run the agency since 1997, and there is disagreement among some senior officials over how hard to push for his removal, and what the diplomatic costs of a public campaign against him could be.
Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, had calls with Iranians intercepted.
Although eavesdropping, even on allies, is considered a well-worn tool of national security and diplomacy, the efforts against ElBaradei demonstrate the lengths some within the administration are willing to go to replace a top international diplomat who questioned U.S. intelligence on Iraq and is now taking a cautious approach on Iran.
The intercepted calls have not produced any evidence of nefarious conduct by ElBaradei, according to three officials who have read them. But some within the administration believe they show ElBaradei lacks impartiality because he tried to help Iran navigate a diplomatic crisis over its nuclear programs. Others argue the transcripts demonstrate nothing more than standard telephone diplomacy.
"Some people think he sounds way too soft on the Iranians, but that's about it," said one official with access to the intercepts.
In Vienna, where the IAEA has its headquarters, officials said they were not surprised about the eavesdropping.
"We've always assumed that this kind of thing goes on," IAEA spokesman Mark Gwozdecky said. "We wish it were otherwise, but we know the reality."
The IAEA, often called the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog agency, coordinates nuclear safety around the world and monitors materials that could be diverted for weapons use. It has played pivotal investigative roles in four major crises in recent years: Iran, Iraq, North Korea and the nuclear black market run by one of Pakistan's top scientists.
Each issue has produced some tension between the agency and the White House, and this is not the first time that ElBaradei or other U.N. officials have been the targets of a spy campaign. Three weeks before the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the Observer newspaper in Britain published a secret directive from the National Security Agency ordering increased eavesdropping on U.N. diplomats.
Earlier this year, Clare Short, who served in British Prime Minister Tony Blair's cabinet, said British spies had eavesdropped on U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan's calls during that period and that she had read transcripts of the intercepts.
The NSA, which is responsible for collecting and decoding electronic communications for the U.S. government, had no information to provide on the ElBaradei intercepts. The CIA refused to comment.
ElBaradei, 62, an Egyptian diplomat who taught international law at New York University, is well-respected inside the United Nations, and many of the countries that sit on the IAEA board have asked him to stay for a third term beginning next summer.
To block that, Washington would need to persuade a little more than one-third of the IAEA's 35-member board to vote against his reappointment.
But even some of the administration's closest friends, including Britain, appear to be reluctant to join a fight they believe is motivated by a desire to pay back ElBaradei over Iraq. Without clear support and no candidate, the White House began searching for material to strengthen its argument that ElBaradei should be retired, according to several senior policymakers who would discuss strategy only on the condition of anonymity.