The compromise legislation approved by the House yesterday in response to the Sept. 11 commission's findings represents a historic reordering of the $40 billion intelligence community.
But some experts say it is not at all evident how, or even if, the changes would help America's spies obtain secrets and aid analysts in determining the intentions of terrorists bent on striking again or worrisome nations developing weapons of mass destruction.
The most significant changes target the top of the intelligence bureaucracy, rather than the field officers, agents and intercept operators who do the work of recruiting spies, penetrating organizations or finding and disrupting plots in motion.
Proponents of the legislation and their allies among the families of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks had grown frustrated by the lack of accountability within intelligence agencies. That is why the bill designates one person -- a new director of national intelligence -- to be accountable to the president and the American public.
But the new chief would not be directly in charge of any operations -- not covert actions, the CIA station chiefs around the world, the army of analysts whose job is to connect the dots, or the operators of high-tech collection systems that contribute so much these days to finding and disrupting terrorist plans.
The new director also would not have total control over the Defense Department collection agencies, mainly expensive satellite and eavesdropping systems, which provide three-quarters of the country's military and international intelligence.
There are other complications. The new director would have competition for the president's ear. The director of a new national counterterrorism center would be a presidential appointee who would report directly to the president on counterterrorist operations.
This new player is confounding to intelligence experts trying to see how all the new pieces would fit together with the existing system and whether the changes would make anyone safer.
"Have they created a stronger, central, senior person in charge? It is not clear to me that they have," said Winston P. Wiley, a former senior CIA official and terrorism expert. "It's not that budgets and personnel are not important, but what's really important is directing, controlling and having access to the people who do the work. They created a person who doesn't have that."
The bill says the new director would "monitor the implementation and execution" of operations, a vague description that has perplexed intelligence officials scurrying to digest the legislation.
The director would have control over the national intelligence budget, but not the roughly 30 percent that covers military intelligence operations. That would remain primarily under Defense Department control.
The new intelligence director also would be responsible for ensuring that each agency knows what other agencies know and for establishing a list of intelligence priorities The biggest targets of this restructured intelligence system -- al Qaeda and Iraqi insurgents -- are stateless enemies who have proved elusive to the traps of traditional espionage tradecraft. Other major concerns most likely will be Iran, North Korea, China and Syria.
Proponents of the legislation argue that, even without direct control, the intelligence director would set the strategic priorities and then ensure the individual departments are on track in pursuing them. "He sets targeting priorities, has the budget power to direct agencies to obtain intelligence and to order the analysis" of priority groups, countries and issues, said one congressional official involved in writing the legislation.
Combined with the changes in human intelligence collection and analysis underway at the CIA, Defense Department and other intelligence agencies after the Sept. 11 attacks, Congress's intent was to "complete the job that's been done piecemeal" by handing ultimate responsibility to one person, he said.