FRUSTRATED United States journalists, despairing of a pool system they say is impeding full coverage of the war in the Gulf, are striking out in growing numbers on their own unauthorized visits to combat units. In doing so, they are following in the footsteps of foreign counterparts, whose effective exclusion from the pools has forced them to rely on their own resources to provide first-hand coverage of the conflict.
The US military, however, upset by what it calls ``unilateral'' reporting trips, is threatening offenders with suspension of their Saudi Arabian press credentials.
Four members of a French TV crew were detained near the Saudi-Iraqi border Friday evening by a US Marine Corps patrol. The Marines will ask the Saudi authorities to revoke the journalists' credentials and visas, said Marine spokesman Chief Warrant Officer Eric Carlson.
As the prospect of a ground war looms, tensions are rising between correspondents and the military organizers of the pool system, who authorize small groups of journalists to accompany troops on the condition they make their reports available to all their colleagues.
``The system is working very poorly,'' complains Phil Shenon of The New York Times. ``My paper has had a reporter in the field for only five or six days'' since the war began Jan. 17. ``We have got much more by sending a correspondent out in his own car to talk to the troops,'' he adds.
Col. Bill Mulvey, the Army officer in charge of arranging the US pools, says he has not been able to attach journalists to units as much as he would like because of logistical difficulties, the distances involved, and because field commanders have not been ready to accept reporters. Even if that were not the case, he says, with more than 800 press people registered at his Joint Information Bureau, ``we are never going to satisfy the journalists.''
The lack of official access to the troops has prompted increasing numbers of reporters to drive north in their own vehicles seeking out soldiers.
``The whole pool system is eroding because the restrictions are so unrealistic and journalists are growing in frustration and boldness,'' says Chuck Lewis, of the Hearst newspaper chain.
``To do their job, people have to consider ways of doing it outside the system,'' adds Associated Press reporter John King.
To Colonel Mulvey, however, organizations that bypass the system have no place on his pools. ``They have asked for support from the military and we have done our half. We are asking that they do theirs'' by respecting the arrangements, he says. He adds that it is up to the Saudis, who have credentialed the journalists, to decide on penalities.
Many US journalists here say they would show more respect for the pool system if it worked better. They complain that the 13 pools have slots for only 113 journalists to cover the activities of over 300,000 US troops.
``One reason US reporters have not gone out on their own in great numbers up until recently is that we bought into this system in good faith,'' says Ron Martz of Cox Newspapers.
Hundreds of reporters - many from the 28 countries that have sent troops to ``Operation Desert Storm'' - have been left out of the pool debate, because, being neither American or British, they have been denied official access to forward areas.
Two slots on the US pools are designated for Saudi reporters, and two for other foreigners. At the current rotation rate, ``it will be ten months before I get onto a pool,'' says Jean-Michel Thenard, of the Paris daily Liberation.
``The fact that we are effectively excluded means that we are obliged to go out on our own if we want to do anything other than rewrite pool reports that none of us have any way of checking,'' he points out.
While some foreign reporters have been welcomed by US units, others have had less pleasant experiences. ``We go up north, and if we see there are no Americans, we say `OK, let's do it,''' says French TV cameraman Nicolas Moscara, whose film of fighting in Khafji was confiscated by US soldiers. ``We've done stories on the Egyptians, the Saudis, and the Kuwaitis without any problem.''
Mr. Thenard hopes that if a ground war starts, ``the military will have other things to think about than stopping journalists, and we will be able to take advantage of the general confusion to get closer to the front.''
The dangers of such activities already have been illustrated by the disappearance three weeks ago of a CBS TV crew, whose vehicle was found abandoned near the Saudi-Iraqi border. The risks will only increase if combat on the ground breaks out.
``We won't have any official information about when the front is moving, or where. There are minefields we won't know about, and the Americans are going to be harder on us,'' says Mr. Moscara. ``It's going to be pretty dangerous.''