News that US director of central intelligence, Porter Goss, told CIA staff this week their job was "to support the Bush administration and its policies in our work," is stirring a new controversy over the future of the agency.
The memorandum, circulated on Wednesday, was attacked by critics as an attempt to suppress dissent, particularly over Iraq, and ensure the agency only produces assessments the White House wants to hear.
But a CIA spokesman insisted Wednesday that Goss' note was not a call for partisan support but rather "intelligence support" intended to help policy-makers in their decisions.
"The Central Intelligence Agency is not a policy organization," the spokesman said.
The note comes at a raw time for the agency, in the wake of high- profile resignations and a campaign by Goss to weed out leakers.
Michael Scheuer, a former head of the CIA's "Bin Laden station," who denounced the Iraq war, said: "I've never experienced this much anxiety and controversy."
"Suddenly political affiliation matters to some degree. The talk is that they're out to clean out Democrats and liberals," said Scheuer, who resigned last week.
"The administration doesn't seem to be able to come to grips with the reality that it was a stupid thing to do to invade Iraq. If it goes too far like this into the political realm our fortunes overseas are going to be hurt," he added.
Goss, a Bush appointee, is seeking to use the CIA's counterintelligence department to weed out leakers to the press, a controversial move that has triggered resignations by senior staff who argued it was an inappropriate use of the agency's mole hunters.
Goss and a team of advisers, whom he brought from the House of Representatives where he was a Republican congressman, have also targeted CIA analysts, many of whom dissented from the administration's pre-war certainty that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and al-Qaeda links.
The directorate's chief, Jami Miscik, is rumored to be the next on the Goss hit list.
According to one intelligence source, the "president's daily brief," which the CIA delivers each morning, has already been "watered down" with the removal of controversial analysis about the counter-insurgency in Iraq or the "global war on terror."
The Goss memorandum, according to an official who had read it, said: "We support the administration and its policies in our work and as agency employees we do not identify with, support or champion opposition to the administration or its policies."
Asked to comment on the note, a CIA spokesman said: "Support means intelligence support. It does not mean taking a position on policy either pro or con."
But Vincent Cannistraro, a former head of the CIA's counter- terrorist centre, said: "It can only be interpreted one way -- there will be no more dissenting opinions."
Goss' order follows more than two years of veiled conflict between the CIA and the White House, which escalated when it became clear the administration was determined to go to war in Iraq. Disgruntled CIA officers fought their corner principally through leaks to the press.
When the head of counterintelligence -- whose name cannot be published under US law -- refused to pursue the leakers last week, the No 2 in the directorate of operations, Michael Sulick, was ordered to fire the one who cannot be named, according to well-informed sources.