Eric Holder, who heads Mr Obama's justice department, is said to have become "incensed" after being accused by David Axelrod of complaining publicly about political interference in his office.
"That's bull****," Mr Holder said in a confrontation after a cabinet meeting, according to author Daniel Klaidman. He writes: "The two men stood chest to chest. It was like a school yard fight".
The relatively mild-mannered Mr Axelrod is said to have told the attorney general: "Don't ever, ever accuse me of trying to interfere with the operations of the Justice Department", a taboo in US politics.
In 'Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency', Klaidman discloses the struggles within Mr Obama's White House at it mounted its controversial campaign against al-Qaeda.
He writes that Mr Holder and Mr Axelrod were separated by Valerie Jarrett, a White House adviser and confidante to Mr Obama. Ms Jarrett "pushed her way between the two men, her sense of decorum disturbed, ordering them to 'take it out of the hallway'," says Klaidman.