WASHINGTON — NEWS reporters should be allowed to wander more freely among US troops in the Gulf war and not be restricted to pool coverage, concluded a panel of former Defense Department officials testifying before a United States Senate committee this week. Based on lessons learned in Vietnam, Grenada, and Panama, panel members concluded there are no military reasons for not allowing freer range of the press.
Meanwhile, testimony from the Pentagon's chief press officer and media representatives themselves suggested how media-military relations have become quite somewhat of a bloodletting of their own, in what is being called the ``second front'' in the Gulf war.
Absent an official forum for the media to register long-simmering discontent, the hearing Wednesday before the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs was ``a way to get the media's legitimate concerns on the table,'' says a Democratic Senate staff member.
Principle areas of media complaints are the military escort requirements (particularly when escorts interfere with coverage), the pool system of coverage, and the pre-transmission military review of copy.
There is little controversy over the Pentagon's basic ground rules for reporting, which govern such issues as details of future operations, specific information about troop strength and location, and operational weaknesses that could be used against US forces.
``The biggest complaint from journalists now is that more of them want to get out into the field.... They're worried about access [to soldiers] in a ground war,'' said Pete Williams, assistant US secretary of defense for public affairs.
The media complain that the pool system restricts where reporters can go, subjects they can report, and how often they can get to the field.
Mr. Williams said journalists must be restricted to pools to keep unit commanders as well as transport vehicles from being overwhelmed by hordes of reporters. There are 1,400 reporters registered with the allied command in Saudi Arabia and about 200 were expected to be out in pools in the field as of Friday, he said.
Retired US Army Col. Harry G. Summers Jr., who has written college and military textbooks on modern warfare, said: ``Pool restrictions are dumb because they create the impression the military is doing something wrong.'' In further disagreement with Pentagon rules, he said, ``It's never crowded at the front'' because not all reporters want to be in that dangerous setting.
His conclusions were echoed by three other former military officials who have contributed to Pentagon press policy in the wake of the US operations in Grenada and Panama. One of them, Fred S. Hoffman, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense who headed the Pentagon investigation of US news policy during the Panama invasion, said the pool system was never meant to be permanent. It was a way to offer the news media quick access to military operations, he explained.
``There were few true security breaches by the press corps in Vietnam, despite deep differences with the military,'' Mr. Hoffman testified.
Former CBS anchor Walter Cronkite testified that he would rather see battlefield censorship than be denied unlimited access to the war zone.
``I don't know what this rush to print or broadcast is about.... It doesn't really matter if it's this minute or hour or day as long as we're entitled to learn it and get the information out in due time,'' said Mr. Cronkite.
``History begins to be distorted with every second that passes, with every retelling of the story,'' Cronkite said, ``so it's very important to get first impressions on camera as [events] happen.'' But he said it is not essential to get it on the air as it happens.