America's spies wander in a wilderness of mirrors of their own making. Baying at their heels are congressional reformers, spurned Iraqi politicians and a tough new boss with a presidential mandate to whip the CIA into line or else.

That's Mission Probably Impossible for Porter Goss, who intends to make the CIA accountable (hooray) for its undeniable serial failures and politically loyal to the Bush White House (hiss). Goss, the agency's director, needs an error-free plan. He is poking at a mean snake with a short stick.

The Chinese would use a different animal metaphor: Goss chops off the heads of chickens to frighten harder-to-get-at monkeys. A former spook and an ex-House member, Goss has forced out two officials who ran the agency's covert operations, and he has a clear exit strategy for others who defy or undercut him.

The ousted officials and/or their admirers at the agency fight back by doing what they do best: getting their story (and Goss's first operational memo) into the press, without identifiable fingerprints on the leaks. Schooled in the black art of camouflaging propaganda for national purposes, they can adapt the technique for personal aims.

The desire for celebrity and for the wages of spin now burns brightly even in the shadow world. This became unmistakable when best-selling author and nonetheless spy Michael Scheuer greeted Goss's appointment by announcing his resignation from the CIA and referred inquiries "to his publicist," as The Post reported without a hint of irony, surprise or incongruity.

Deception is a way of life for spies, whose survival depends on lying fluently. The constant danger is that they will begin lying to friends and superiors as well as foes, and ultimately to themselves. To grant a power is to predict its abuse: The agency's manipulations in Iraqi politics are the latest case in point.

Sen. John McCain hits home by describing the CIA as "dysfunctional" and "a rogue agency." Goss echoes that judgment in his memo by reportedly saying that the agency's job is "not [to] identify with, support or champion opposition to the administration or its policies." The suddenly loquacious Scheuer said that the agency had been happy to let him oppose the administration, although, he said, that had not been his intent.

But Goss errs badly in saying that the agency must "support the administration and its policies in our work." He should rescind that unwise and unworkable phrase and concentrate instead on his promise to "let the facts alone speak to the policy-maker."

Well, yes, but which facts? Which policymakers? How loudly? When Clintonites wanted facts that argued against military retaliation for al Qaeda's bombing of the USS Cole, such "facts" were shouted at them by the intelligence community. And when President Bush decided that Iraq's Ahmed Chalabi was politically inconvenient, the agency gathered facts by making many of them up and helping splash the most lurid ones on newsmagazine covers.

Bush, Goss and others in command must urgently think through the fact that the agency whose judgments and tactics they now so distrust gave them Ayad Allawi, a longtime CIA protege, as Iraq's interim prime minister. Covert efforts to tip the January elections to Allawi's clique would be a betrayal of U.S. sacrifices for freedom in Iraq.

For the longer term, Bush must decide how a secret agency dedicated to deceit can be made compatible with America's open society and with his promises to bring democracy to the Middle East. That may be the Mission Impossible on which Bush's ringing declarations about freedom could founder.

Bush would then also wander in the wilderness of mirrors, a phrase that the CIA's late James Angleton borrowed from T. S. Eliot to describe the espionage trade. It is a leitmotif for a marvelous new book about spies, truth and no consequences that Goss should read now, if only for the author's observation that "Angleton's career supports the theory that the intelligence profession not only attracts neurotics but produces them."

"Deceiving the Deceivers" argues that British turncoat Kim Philby was not the KGB spy of the century, as widely believed, but was used in an ultra-secret British disinformation operation to convince Moscow that it faced a mighty (but nonexistent) U.S.-U.K. nuclear arsenal at the Cold War's dawn.

The author, S.J. Hamrick, a retired U.S. diplomat who was legendary as seer and analyst in the early days of Africa's independence, is no CIA-basher. But his historical account speaks to the eternal danger of the spies treating truth as a pliable bit of tradecraft and of others ever fully believing them.

jimhoagland@washpost.com