Stop the presses! White House aides bowling.

Somewhere up in the Catoctin mountains of Maryland, President Clinton is on a peaceful-looking patio, dressed in jeans and Nikes, negotiating with the Israeli prime minister. White House aides, in their spare time, are bowling. And the dinnerware at Camp David is gold-rimmed china with crystal goblets.

We in the media can tell you these earth-shattering facts, not because we have been able to witness history unfold firsthand, but rather this is what the White House shows us in photos and tells us in briefings. News is guarded so tightly that the announcement of a fender bender between two negotiators' golf carts seemed like the biggest leak since the Pentagon Papers.

TV cameras were briefly allowed access to Camp David at the start of the Mideast peace summit last Tuesday, but not one journalist has set foot on the grounds of the 143-acre presidential hideaway since then.

True, Mr. Clinton, in characteristic form, broke his own "blackout" ground rules by granting an interview with the New York Daily News this week. But, in the end, he performed that old Washington trick, playing both sides and finishing at the untelling middle. Yes, he said that "I'm more optimistic than I was when they got here," but cautioned, "I would be totally misleading if I said I had an inkling that a deal is at hand."

All this frustrates members of the press corps, who are getting more satisfaction from home-cooked meals dished out by a local church than from any morsel dropped by White House spokesman Joe Lockhart.

In fact, those of us who are White House pool reporters - and who are supposed to be closest to these historic events - have found ourselves holed up in a windowless gymnasium with few phones and a TV set, where we're forced to watch even Mr. Lockhart on CNN. Some photographers pass their time tossing a football in the parking lot.

While such a blackout may disappoint the media, it's certainly not new, and it reflects a long tradition of secrecy at the woodsy retreat first established by President Franklin Roosevelt.

The fenced compound, guarded by Marines, is not visible from the road. And when visitors to the Catoctin mountains ask park rangers where Camp David is located, they are told that that is proprietary information. Nevermind that the Catoctin Park map shows a big chunk in the middle conspicuously labeled as a "restricted area."

The media are occasionally given access, but "it's the president's retreat, and when he's there, it's a break for the president and the media," says P.J. Crowley, spokesman for the National Security Council.

From the negotiating point of view, there's good reason for the secrecy. This administration, and others before it, worries that leaks could incite protests at home, sapping leaders' conviction to take bold steps. The Carter administration imposed a news blackout during the first Camp David peace talks in 1978. President Roosevelt met in complete privacy with Winston Churchill here.

So far, Lockhart has held the line on no news. He'll say how often the president is meeting with Ehud Barak, Yasser Arafat, and his own team, and that, as time passes, the "tension" is palpable. The rest is atmospherics and scene-setting. Negotiators walking, negotiators bicycling, negotiators golf-carting. But ask who was involved in the infamous golf-cart mishap, and the answers again get nondescript: "Two [negotiators] on the same side. That's all I'm going to say," Lockhart said.

And if you must know, first dog Buddy is in dog heaven. As Lockhart says, "the amenities from a canine point of view at Camp David are far superior to what is offered at the ... White House."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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