The US Central Intelligence Agency has been thrown into turmoil less than two months after Porter Goss, a former Republican lawmaker, was named by President George W. Bush to head the agency.

John McLaughlin, the deputy director of the CIA who had led the agency following the resignation of George Tenet last June, stepped down late on Friday amid what US press reports said was a bitter confrontation with Mr Goss. The 32-year veteran said in a statement that his retirement was "a purely personal decision", but the Washington Post reported that the move came in protest over the heavy- handed tactics of associates brought into the agency by Mr Goss.

The newspaper said that Stephen Kappes, director of foreign operations for the CIA's clandestine service, and several other top operations officials had also threatened to leave.

Mr Goss took the post of CIA director in September promising big reforms, particularly in the agency's operations arm, which is responsible for infiltrating foreign governments and terrorist groups. The House of Representatives' intelligence committee, then chaired by Mr Goss, issued a report in June accusing the agency of a "dysfunctional denial of any need for corrective action", focusing its criticisms particularly on the failure of clandestine service in the war on terrorism.

Several of the staff aides who worked for Mr Goss in Congress, who had previously been mid-level CIA officials, have now taken top jobs at the agency.

Much of the confrontation, the Post reported, had centred on Patrick Murray, who was an aide to Mr Goss in Congress and is now the director's chief of staff at the CIA.

Mr McLaughlin has been the most prominent of several career CIA officials trying to defend the agency's performance against criticism from many quarters.

He said in a speech last June that the failures over Iraq and the September 11 attacks were "the result of specific, discrete problems that we understand and are well on our way to addressing or have already addressed".

The upheaval at the agency comes at an extremely sensitive time. Congress is considering the creation of a new post of National Intelligence Director, which would supersede the CIA director by taking overall authority of the US intelligence community.

But the legislation, which was advocated by the independent commission that investigated the September 11 attacks, has been stalled over fights between House and Senate leaders, primarily over whether the Pentagon's intelligence operations would remain independent.

The legislation now appears unlikely to pass in the "lame duck" session of Congress that begins this week, meaning it will need to be introduced and debated anew when a new session of Congress convenes early next year.

That will leave Mr Goss in the critical role of overseeing US intelligence for the foreseeable future.

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