The officials said anonymous accusations against ElBaradei made by U.S. officials in recent weeks are part of an orchestrated campaign. Some U.S. officials accused ElBaradei of purposely concealing damning details of Iran's program from the IAEA board. But they have offered no evidence of a coverup.
"The plan is to keep the spotlight on ElBaradei and raise the heat," another U.S. official said.
Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, had calls with Iranians intercepted.
But another official said there is disagreement within the administration, chiefly between Undersecretary of State for Arms Control John R. Bolton, who aides say is eager to see ElBaradei go, and outgoing Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, over whether it would be worth diverting diplomatic capital that could be better spent on lobbying the board to get tougher with Iran.
In September, Powell said ElBaradei should step aside, citing a term limit policy adopted several years ago in Geneva by the top 10 contributors to international organizations.
"We think the Geneva rule is a good rule: two terms," Powell told Agence France-Presse. "It's not been followed in the past on many occasions, more often than not, but we still think it's a good, useful rule." Powell said he discussed it personally with ElBaradei, who decided he would stay on if the board wanted him.
"However this effort is justified by the administration, the assumption internationally will be that the United States was blackballing ElBaradei because of Iraq and Iran," said Robert Einhorn, who was assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation until 2001.
Several months ago, the State Department began canvassing potential candidates, including Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, two Japanese diplomats, two South Korean officials and a Brazilian disarmament expert.
But the South Koreans and Brazil's Sergio Duarte are now considered to be problematic candidates because both countries are under IAEA investigation for suspect nuclear work. Downer, who is not willing to challenge ElBaradei, still remains the administration's top choice. The deadline for submitting alternative candidates is Dec. 31.
"Our original strategy was to get Alex Downer to throw his hat in the ring, but we couldn't," one U.S. policymaker said. "Anyone in politics will tell you that you can't beat somebody with nobody, but we're going to try to disprove that."
That strategy worked once before when the administration orchestrated the 2002 removal of Jose M. Bustani, who ran the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), a U.N. organization based in The Hague. Bustani drew the administration's ire when he tried to involve his organization in the search for suspected chemical weapons in Iraq.
The administration canvassed the organization's board and then forced a narrow vote for his ouster. A successor was found three months later, and there was little diplomatic fallout from the administration's maneuver, mostly because the OPCW has a fairly low profile and its members wanted to avoid being drawn into the diplomatic row leading up to the Iraq war.
But John S. Wolf, who was assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation until June, said such action comes at a cost and makes it harder for the United States to keep the world's attention focused on pressing threats.
"The net result of campaigns that others saw as spiteful was that even where the U.S. had quite legitimate and proven concerns, the atmosphere had been so soured that it wasn't possible to recoup," Wolf said.
Gareth Evans, a former Australian foreign minister who now heads a high-level panel on U.N. reform, said that ElBaradei has been excellent in his job and that Washington would be making a mistake to challenge him:
"If they think they can get anyone who could have better handled the complex and difficult issues surrounding North Korea, Iran and other controversies, they are not understanding the world right now."