| Mohamed ElBaradei
Washington, Dec. 12: The Bush administration has dozens of intercepts of Mohamed ElBaradei's phone calls with Iranian diplomats and is scrutinising them in search of ammunition to oust him as director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, according to three US 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.
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 US 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 programmes. 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 is headquartered, officials said they were not surprised about the eavesdropping. 'We've always assumed that this kind of thing goes on,' said IAEA spokesperson Mark Gwozdecky. 'We wish it were otherwise, but we know the reality.'
The IAEA, often called the UN'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 UN officials have been targets of a spy campaign. Three weeks before the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Britain's Observer newspaper published a secret directive from the National Security Agency ordering increased eavesdropping on UN diplomats.
Earlier this year, Clare Short, who served in British Prime Minister Tony Blair's Cabinet, said British spies had eavesdropped on UN secretary general Kofi Annan's calls during that period and that she had read transcripts of the intercepts.