congressional critics as an ineffective spymaster.
Mr. Webster's detractors fault the quality of intelligence he has provided on Iraq and his overall management of the sprawling U.S. intelligence community, which encompasses the CIA and 11 other secret agencies.
The congressional intelligence committees have publicly criticized the way the intelligence agencies are managed, citing spotty analyses, overlapping and uncoordinated missions and redundancies that waste billions of dollars. They are considering sweeping changes, including creating a new intelligence czar outside the CIA, relieving Mr. Webster of some of his powers.
"Webster is not a very important, visible or effective director of central intelligence," said a White House official who deals in intelligence matters. This and other administration officials said they could not think of another time when a CIA director was so distanced from a major U.S. foreign policy crisis.
"The intelligence community is virtually rudderless," said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., who served six years on the Senate intelligence panel.
Undercutting Mr. Webster's role as the president's chief intelligence officer is the fact that President Bush, who ran the CIA in 1976, and his deputy national security adviser, Robert M. Gates, deputy CIA director from 1986 to 1989, consider themselves their own best intelligence officers, according to White House, CIA and congressional officials.
Several high-ranking administration officials, speaking anonymously, said Mr. Webster, a former federal judge and FBI director, had been all but invisible during the gulf crisis.
"I have not seen him at any important meeting since August 2nd," when Iraq invaded Kuwait, the White House official said. "I find it unprecedented" that a CIA director would be so removed in a crisis, he said.
CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield strongly rebutted the criticism.
"This is a director who's very much in charge," Mr. Mansfield said. "People who say he's not engaged don't have it right.
"Judge Webster is at senior intelligence meetings that require intelligence input," the CIA spokesman said. "But some meetings are strictly policy discussions, and these are occasions when he is not present."
Mr. Mansfield stressed that Mr. Webster's job is "not to make policy. His role is to provide information to the policy-makers."
Some of those same White House policy-makers say Mr. Webster provided fuzzy intelligence in the gulf crisis last summer.
"That's simply not the case," Mr. Mansfield said.
The CIA reported that Iraq was likely to invade Kuwait and cautioned that an invasion of Saudi Arabia could occur with little or no warning, according to officials familiar with the CIA's daily reports from last summer. Mr. Webster's critics say the agency understated the dangers of an attack on Kuwait and overstated the dangers of an invasion of Saudi Arabia.
"The president has expressed satisfaction with the intelligence he's getting, and that's all that matters, that's what really matters," Mr. Mansfield said.
A bill that Senator Specter introduced Tuesday would create a director of national intelligence to oversee every aspect of U.S. intelligence, including the CIA.
"The DNI would be in charge of all intelligence agencies and setting policy as a result of what he sees," Mr. Specter said. The CIA director would be limited to running the CIA and any covert activities directed by the president.
Under the 1947 law that set up the modern national-security structure, the director of central intelligence wears two big hats cocked at different angles. He runs the CIA and is responsible for all other U.S. intelligence agencies.
However, other agencies controlled by the Pentagon under the CIA umbrella have grown to dwarf the CIA. Today the military commands about 85 percent of all intelligence spending, which is close to $30 billion a year.