Source of Powell's Iran intelligence under scrutiny
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The source of intelligence used this week by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to suggest Iran is working on a nuclear weapons program may not be reliable, knowledgeable sources told CNN Friday.
The issue surfaced when The National Council of Resistance of Iran -- which is on the U.S. State Department's list of terrorist organizations --revealed satellite photographs this week it said showed a hidden nuclear plant in Iran, allegations the Iranians denied.
"This allegation is timed to coincide with the next meeting of the board of governors of the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency]," Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Hussein Moussavian, said. "And every time just before the meeting there are these kind of allegations either from the United States or terrorist groups. And every time these allegations have proven to be false."
Powell, en route to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Santiago, Chile, told reporters he had seen intelligence that appears to "corroborate" the resistance group's information.
And the State Department stands by Powell's comments, saying the information he cited offered a "firm basis for his remarks."
"The secretary did not misspeak," deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said. "The secretary knows exactly what he was talking about. And there should be, I think, no question in our mind of casting doubt or walking it back."
"We believe there's solid information to substantiate clandestine Iranian efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction and delivery systems, and this is something we've been saying for quite some time," Ereli said, adding that the United States is on "very very solid ground" in pointing to such efforts.
A senior State Department official also said the department "stands by the information and the conclusion" reached by the information Powell referred to in his remarks.
"Those who have seen it have expressed confidence that, A, it is valid and, B, the critics taking issue with it don't know what they are talking about," the official said. "What the secretary said was backed up by strong information that gives us confidence in his conclusion."
The official also said Powell was "not talking about one specific piece of data," but rather was trying to "paint the big picture" about the concerns regarding the nuclear program.
Some U.S. officials were angered by a report in Friday's edition of The Washington Post which quotes two sources who said Powell used information that was classified, and from a single unvetted source.
The Post article said the information Powell shared with reporters came from a "walk-in" source who approached U.S. intelligence and may or may not be reliable.
While declining to say whether the Post account was accurate, one U.S. official said "public discussion of the details of the human source of intelligence is irresponsible and a remarkably bad idea."
The official called it "disturbing" that other officials would discuss sources and methods in any detail with a journalist.
Analysts say the CIA may ask the Justice Department to investigate the leak.
Intelligence insiders question whether the leak could have come from their community, which traditionally guards information about sources and methods very carefully.
The intelligence upon which Powell based his comments to reporters was disseminated to a range of officials at the State Department, the White House, and the Pentagon, among other entities.
A British source also said his government was aware of the information.
The Post reported that the "walk-in" source delivered "more than 1,000 pages purported to be Iranian drawings and technical documents, including a nuclear warhead design and modifications to enable Iranian ballistic missiles to deliver an atomic strike."
Before the Post story appeared, Powell discussed his Wednesday comment with Chilean television.
"Now, I made a statement yesterday that said we had some information," Powell said. "I've seen some information, and the dissidents have put out more information, that suggests that the Iranians are also working on the designs one would have to have for putting such a warhead into a missile.
"This shouldn't be brand-new news. This shouldn't surprise anybody. If they had been working on a nuclear weapon and design a warhead, certainly they were also trying to figure out how they would deliver such a warhead."
In October, Iran said it could mass produce the Shahab-3 missile, capable of hitting Israel and U.S. forces in the Mideast, although it insisted that the missiles were only for defensive purposes. Reports at the time said the missile was capable of carrying a conventional or nonconventional warhead.
Powell, who has submitted his resignation and will not serve in the second Bush administration, said the Iranians need to "convince the international community that they are not moving in the direction of a nuclear weapon, and they will comply with their obligations to the IAEA."