WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State Colin L. Powell shared information with reporters Wednesday about Iran's nuclear program that was classified and based on an unvetted, single source who provided information that two US officials said yesterday was highly significant if true, but has not yet been verified.
Powell and other senior Cabinet members were briefed last week on the sensitive intelligence. The material was stamped "No Foreign," meaning it was not to be shared with allies, although President Bush decided that portions could be shared last week with Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, officials said.
According to one official with access to the material, a "walk-in" source approached US intelligence earlier this month with more than 1,000 pages purported to be Iranian drawings and documents, including a nuclear warhead design and modifications enabling Iranian missiles to deliver an atomic strike. The official agreed to discuss the information on condition of anonymity and only because Powell alluded to it publicly.
But US intelligence officials have been combing the information with a wary eye, mindful of the mistakes made in trusting intelligence alleging that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.
If the information on Iran were confirmed, it would mean the Islamic republic is further along than previously known in developing a nuclear weapon and the means to deliver it. The documents included a specific warhead design.
US intelligence has known since at least 2002 that Iran was capable of enriching uranium, the key ingredient in a nuclear bomb. Iran also has a successful missile program. But UN nuclear inspectors who have been investigating for nearly two years have found no evidence that Tehran possesses a warhead design or is conducting a nuclear weapons program.
The Islamic republic, which on Sunday entered into a new deal with France, Britain, and Germany to suspend its nuclear program, has denied it is trying to build atomic weapons and insists its work is part of a budding energy effort.
Western intelligence estimates of Iran's capabilities vary. But US officials believe Iran could be three to five years from completing a bomb if it is successful at constructing and operating thousands of centrifuge parts for enriching uranium.
The information provided by the source, who was not previously known to US intelligence, does not mention uranium or any other area of Iran's known nuclear program, according to the official with access to the material.
The official said the CIA remains unsure about the authenticity of the documents and how the informant came into their possession. A second official would say only that there are questions about the source of the information.
Officials interviewed did not know the identity of the source or whether the individual is connected to an Iranian exile group that made fresh accusations about Iran at a news conference Wednesday in Paris. The National Council for Resistance in Iran charged that Iran was still enriching uranium and will continue to do so.
The lack of certainty about the source who approached US intelligence had kept officials from talking publicly about the information, and Powell's comments caught the few informed officials by surprise, angering some of them.
Powell's remarks also drew expressions of concern from European allies. Yesterday, in an effort to assuage European concerns, the administration told diplomats that Powell misspoke in releasing information that had not yet been verified, sources said. During a conversation about Iran with reporters accompanying him on a trip to Chile on Wednesday, Powell said he had "seen some information that would suggest that they have been actively working on delivery systems. I'm not talking about uranium or fissile material or the warhead, I'm talking about what one does with a warhead."
Powell's spokesman said yesterday that the secretary stood by those remarks. "The secretary did not misspeak," said J. Adam Ereli, who added that Powell's deputy, Richard Armitage, "saw the same information."