WASHINGTON - The White House issued a classified order this month to resolve mounting frictions between the nation's intelligence director and the CIA over issues including how the agency conducts covert operations, U.S. officials said.
The White House intervention reflects simmering tension between the two most powerful players in the U.S. intelligence community: Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair and CIA Director Leon E. Panetta.
The memo maintains the CIA's status as the nation's lead spy service on covert missions, rejecting an attempt by Blair to assert more control. But the document also includes language detailing the agency's obligation to work closely with Blair on sensitive operations.
The two sides have sparred in recent months over the CIA's role in Afghanistan, officials said, with Blair voicing frustration that the agency has given too little attention to supporting U.S. efforts to strengthen the existing government in Afghanistan and reduce the power of Taliban insurgents.
In meetings, Blair has pushed an effort "to turn the CIA around," said a senior U.S. intelligence official familiar with the discussions. In particular, Blair has prodded the agency to curtail support to discredited warlords who may help in the hunt for al-Qaeda but who also contribute to corruption in Kabul.
Senior lawmakers and U.S. military officials have also voiced concern that the CIA's mission is too narrow.
"Right now the CIA is focused on the counterterrorism-only mission," said Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond of Missouri, the ranking Republican on the Senate intelligence committee.
Unless the CIA does more to help stabilize local provinces, Bond said, "all the work they do hunting bad guys is for naught when the Taliban can come in at dark and wipe out anybody" trying to help the United States.
CIA officials disagree with the characterization of the agency's work.
"The CIA does more in Afghanistan than counterterrorism, though that priority is decisive to the success of everything else," a U.S. intelligence official said. The agency understands "that our government needs to know about a host of other issues, from narcotics flows and corruption to local perceptions of the United States."
The White House memo, signed by national security adviser James L. Jones, sought to settle a collection of disputes that have plagued the relationship between the DNI and CIA director for several years.
The White House sided with the CIA on one of the thorniest issues: who would select the top U.S. spy representative to countries overseas. The Jones memo establishes that the prestigious posts will always be held by the CIA, rejecting Blair's request to be free to choose representatives from other U.S. intelligence agencies.
Blair also sought a place in the chain of command on covert action - activities that range from paramilitary operations to Predator strikes in Pakistan. But Panetta fought to preserve the CIA's direct line to the White House, a relationship the agency considers crucial to its unique status in the spy community.