Back in the U.S., Wilson presented his report orally to CIA officers. They wrote up his findings, gave him a middling "good" rating for his performance and, on March 9, routinely sent a copy to other agencies -- including the White House -- without marking it for the attention of senior officials.
Wilson would write later that his trip led him to believe that the administration had lied about the reasons for going to war. But in reading his report, some analysts thought that evidence of previous Iraqi visits to Niger was a sign of interest in that country's most valuable export, uranium. Others thought Wilson's report put to rest a dubious claim. The Senate Intelligence Committee and top CIA officials said his report was inconclusive.
Cheney, Libby and the CIA
At the Pentagon and in Cheney's office, a profound skepticism of the CIA produced what one State Department veteran termed an ongoing "food fight" over prewar intelligence.
The atmosphere prevailed even though the CIA joined the White House and Pentagon in concluding, incorrectly, that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was making progress developing weapons of mass destruction.
An ingrained antipathy toward the CIA may help explain the hostile reaction to Wilson's public claim that he and others had debunked the reported Iraqi interest in uranium from Niger.
That skepticism was validated for Cheney and Libby by more than a decade of CIA blunders they had observed from their days at the Pentagon.
"It's part of the warp and woof and fabric of DOD not to like the intelligence community," said Larry Wilkerson, a 31-year military veteran who was former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's chief of staff.
When Hussein invaded Kuwait in August 1990, Cheney was secretary of Defense and Libby was a deputy to Paul D. Wolfowitz, then undersecretary of Defense for policy.
After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, U.N. inspectors discovered that Hussein had far greater capabilities in chemical, biological and nuclear weapons than the CIA had estimated.
For Cheney and Libby, this experience shaped their skepticism about the CIA and carried over to preparations for the war in Iraq, said a person who spoke with Libby about it years later.
"Libby's basic view of the world is that the CIA has blown it over and over again," said the source, who declined to be identified because he had spoken with Libby on a confidential basis. "Libby and Cheney were [angry] that we had not been prepared for the potential in the first Gulf War."
In the view of these officials, who would go on to form George W. Bush's war cabinet, the CIA had stumbled through the 1990s, starting with the failure to predict the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. In 1995, Hussein's son-in-law defected and led U.N. inspectors to an previously unknown biological weapons cache. In 1998, the agency failed to anticipate a nuclear weapon test by India.
Later that year Rumsfeld -- then a corporate chief executive who served on defense-related boards and commissions -- wrote what Brookings Institution scholar Ivo H. Daalder called "one of the most critical reports in the history of intelligence," arguing that the ability for enemies to strike the United States with ballistic missiles had been grossly underestimated.
On the eve of the Iraq war, with Rumsfeld as Defense secretary, these men were fighting yet another battle with the CIA, this time over the credibility of Iraqi exile leader Ahmad Chalabi.
Rumsfeld, Libby and Wolfowitz were longtime supporters of Chalabi, the Iraqi National Congress leader who was a key source of the now-discredited intelligence that Hussein had hidden huge stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. The CIA viewed Chalabi as a "fake," said Daalder, a former Security Council staffer.
Rumsfeld's Pentagon established an independent intelligence operation, the Office of Special Plans, which essentially provided the Defense Department and White House with an alternative to CIA and State Department intelligence. The competing operations would create confusion in preparations for the invasion of Iraq.
When the disclosure of Wilson's CIA mission to Niger put the White House on the defensive, one administration official said it reminded a tightknit group of Bush neoconservatives of their longtime battles with the agency and underlined their determination to fight.
Many of those officials also were members of the White House Iraq Group, established to coordinate and promote administration policy. It included the most influential players who would represent two elements of the current scandal: a hardball approach to political critics and long-standing disdain for CIA views on intelligence matters.
The group consisted of Rove, Libby, White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr., then-national security advisor Condoleezza Rice and her deputy, Stephen Hadley, and Mary Matalin, Cheney's media advisor. All are believed to have been questioned in the leak case; papers and e-mails about the group were subpoenaed.