U.S. Pores Over Transcripts to Try to Oust Nuclear Chief
By Dafna Linzer
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.
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.
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.
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."