WASHINGTON – The CIA leak scandal has peeled back the veil on the most closely held White House secret of all: the subtle but unmistakable erosion in the bond between President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.

Multiple sources close to Bush told the New York Daily News that while the vice president remains his boss’s valued political partner and counselor, his clout has lessened – primarily as a result of issues arising from the Iraq war.

“The relationship is not what it was,” a presidential counselor said. “There has been some distance for some time.”

A senior administration official termed any such suggestion “categorically false.”

Several sources said the distance is certain to accelerate with the Oct. 28 indictment of Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Cheney’s former chief of staff.

“Cheney is wounded by this,” a longtime Bush associate said.

Outwardly, there is little to suggest anything is amiss. Cheney, wife Lynne and their two daughters were guests, for example, at last week’s Bush dinner for the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall.

Earlier this year, Bush praised Cheney at a Republican campaign dinner as a “steady adviser, the solid rock – and what a decent man he is. I’m proud to be serving with him for four more years.”

“The public side of the relationship hasn’t changed,” a close presidential loyalist said. “The private side of the relationship is not to the degree it used to be. Cheney has been his gray-haired senior adviser. That’s the void that needs to be filled.”

Other sources familiar with Bush’s thinking say Cheney’s zealous advocacy for what has become a troubled Iraq policy has taken a toll – especially since Cheney’s predictions about how Iraq would play out have proven optimistic.

These sources also said Libby’s indictment was a wake-up call for White House aides who have long believed the Cheney national security operation has enjoyed too much of a free hand in administration policymaking.

“The vice president’s office will never be quite as independent from the White House as it has been,” said a key Bush associate. “That will end.

“Cheney never operated without a degree of (presidential) license, but there are people around who cannot believe some of the advice (Bush) has been given.”

The source declined to offer any specifics, citing the extraordinary sensitivity surrounding the Bush-Cheney relationship.

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