WASHINGTON - A powerful "old guard" faction in the Central Intelligence Agency has launched an unprecedented campaign to undermine the Bush administration with a battery of damaging leaks and briefings about Iraq.
The White House is incensed by the increasingly public sniping from some senior intelligence officers who, it believes, are conducting a partisan operation to swing the election on November 2 in favour of John Kerry, the Democratic candidate, and against George W Bush.
Head to head: Bush and Kerry
Jim Pavitt, a 31-year CIA veteran who retired as a departmental chief in August, said that he cannot recall a time of such "viciousness and vindictiveness" in a battle between the White House and the agency.
John Roberts, a conservative security analyst, commented bluntly: "When the President cannot trust his own CIA, the nation faces dire consequences."
Relations between the White House and the agency are widely regarded as being at their lowest ebb since the hopelessly botched Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba by CIA-sponsored exiles under President John F Kennedy in 1961.
There is anger within the CIA that it has taken all the blame for the failings of pre-war intelligence on Saddam Hussein's weapons programmes.
Former senior CIA officials argue that so-called "neo-conservative" hawks such as the vice president, Dick Cheney, the secretary of defence, Donald Rumsfeld, and his number three at the defence department, Douglas Feith, have prompted the ill-feeling by demanding "politically acceptable" results from the agency and rejecting conclusions they did not like. Yet Colin Powell, the less hardline secretary of state, has also been scathing in his criticism of pre-war intelligence briefings.
The leaks are also a shot across the bows of Porter Goss, the agency's new director and a former Republican congressman. He takes over with orders from the White House to end the in-fighting and revamp the troubled spy agency as part of a radical overhaul of the American intelligence world.
Bill Harlow, the former CIA spokesman who left with the former director George Tenet in July, acknowledged that there had been leaks from within the agency. "The intelligence community has been made the scapegoat for all the failings over Iraq," he said. "It deserves some of the blame, but not all of it. People are chafing at that, and that's the background to these leaks."
Fighting to defend their patch ahead of the future review, anti-Bush CIA operatives have ensured that Iraq remains high on the election campaign agenda long after Republican strategists such as Karl Rove, the President's closest adviser, had hoped that it would fade from the front pages.
In the latest clash, a senior former CIA agent revealed that Mr Cheney "blew up" when a report into links between the Saddam regime and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the terrorist behind the kidnappings and beheadings of hostages in Iraq, including the Briton Kenneth Bigley, proved inconclusive.
Other recent leaks have included the contents of classified reports drawn up by CIA analysts before the invasion of Iraq, warning the White House about the dangers of post-war instability. Specifically, the reports said that rogue Ba'athist elements might team up with terrorist groups to wage a guerrilla war.
Critics of the White House include officials who have served in previous Republican administrations such as Vince Cannistraro, a former CIA head of counter-terrorism and member of the National Security Council under Ronald Reagan.
"These have been an extraordinary four years for the CIA and the political pressure to come up with the right results has been enormous, particularly from Vice-President Cheney.
"I'm afraid that the agency is guilty of bending over backwards to please the administration. George Tenet was desperate to give them what they wanted and that was a complete disaster."
With the simmering rows breaking out in public, the Wall Street Journal declared in an editorial that the administration was now fighting two insurgencies: one in Iraq and one at the CIA.
In a difficult week for President Bush leading up to Friday's presidential debate, the CIA-led Iraqi Survey Group confirmed that Saddam had had no weapons of mass destruction, while Mr Rumsfeld distanced himself from the administration's long-held assertion of ties between Saddam and the al-Qaeda terror network.
Earlier, unguarded comments by Paul Bremer, the former American administrator of Iraq who said that America "never had enough troops on the ground", had given the row about post-war strategy on the ground fresh impetus.
With just 23 days before the country votes for its next president, both sides are braced for further bruising encounters.
© 2004 Telegraph.Co.UK