IAEA Leader's Phone Tapped
Sun Dec 12,12:00 AM ET
By Dafna Linzer, Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
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 (news - web sites) 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
"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 (news - web sites) 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 (news - web sites)'s
cabinet, said British spies had eavesdropped on U.N.
Secretary General Kofi Annan (news - web sites)'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 (news - web sites)
refused to comment.
ElBaradei, 62, an Egyptian diplomat who taught
international law at New York University, is
well-respected inside the United Nations (news - web
sites), 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
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
"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
"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
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
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 (news - web sites).
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
"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,"
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."