Lt. Gen Thomas Kelly, a ruddy-faced man with a chest full of decorations, stood before a battery of 17 minicams and said:

"We're not discussing the number of Patriot missiles expended. ... We have air superiority. I'm not going to give you actual numbers. ... I'd be reticent to hang a percentage on it right now. ... The Israelis are working hard on that. You'll have to go ask them what the specifics are. ... I'll have to check on that and get back to you."

Another day, another Defense Department briefing. In a now-familiar ritual, nearly 60 reporters yesterday engaged in a 45-minute verbal sparring match with Kelly and chief Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams that produced little news and few concrete facts.

"I wouldn't say it was wildly informative," declared David J. Lynch, defense reporter for the Orange County Register, with studied understatement.

"With every new day in this campaign, they think of more reasons why they can't tell us how they're doing," said Melissa Healy of the Los Angeles Times. "They've sharpened their ability to tell you why they can't tell you something."

Perhaps the starkest clash of cultures occurred when John Tirpak of Aerospace Daily asked Kelly why he couldn't say which of three standard missiles U.S. pilots had used to shoot down Iraqi planes. "You're buttin' into a policy there," Kelly replied.

Williams insisted that Pentagon officials were doing the best they could to provide information. "I realize the desire to score this like a football match, and what's the score this period? It isn't like a video game where you press a button and the thing goes beep and you know where you stand," he said.

The briefing room is located at the end of Correspondents Corridor, dedicated in 1972 by then-Defense Secretary Melvin Laird "in honor of a free and strong American press."

"Welcome Temporary War Experts," says a sign on the pressroom door.

Yesterday's briefing came as journalists and some politicians were growing increasingly concerned over the lack of details to support the Pentagon's contention that the U.S.-led air attacks have inflicted heavy damage on Iraq. "They are managing what the American people can learn about their war," said Rep. Louis Stokes (D-Ohio). "We are not getting an ugly picture at all, and war is ugly."

Several reporters questioned why the military had released a half-dozen close-up videotapes of successful U.S. bombings but none of botched missions.

David Martin, CBS's defense correspondent, said the Pentagon's stance was "not totally unreasonable" because officials were "erring on the side of caution."

"Obviously we're not getting enough information, but welcome to the Pentagon," said Martin, who has covered the beat for eight years. "This is what goes on day in and day out, but now the whole world is watching. Maybe I've been here too long. Maybe I've gotten too used to this stuff."

Wolf Blitzer of Cable News Network was more critical. "They're putting out the good news as much as they can," he said. "We're captives of what officials here at the Pentagon are telling us. ... There are a lot of guys here, some of them from Vietnam days, who regard the press as hostile and unfriendly."

The briefing opened at 3:30 p.m. with Kelly and Capt. David Herrington explaining why they had not been able to provide bomb damage assessments -- BDAs in defense lingo -- for the five-day assault on Iraq. "It's time-consuming, it's manpower-intensive and it takes a lot of time," Herrington said.

As reporters scribbled away, Kelly proved adept at answering each question without providing hard information. The torching of Kuwaiti oil fields? "No effect on U.S. military operations." The latest Iraqi missile attack on Israel? "That happened within the last couple of hours." Saddam Hussein's strategy? "Very difficult for me to say." Limitations of the Patriot antimissile defense? "That will have to be analyzed."

Williams, who finished the briefing, was peppered with questions about the military's initial claim that 80 percent of its bombing raids had been successful. Officials later conceded that the more than 10,000 sorties flown against Iraq included reconnaissance, escorts, refueling and other support missions. And "success" was defined as the pilot releasing his payload and returning to base, regardless of whether the target was destroyed.

"How many of those sorties are combat sorties?" asked Healy of the Los Angeles Times.

"We're going to try to get those numbers for you tomorrow," Williams said.

By now the questioning had shifted from the jargon-filled world of military tactics to the more political debate over whether the Pentagon was deliberately withholding information or putting a positive spin on the news. The tension level jumped a notch, with more hands shooting up in the air, more reporters shouting, "Pete! Pete!"

"Do you fear the story's getting out of control?" asked Paul Bedard of the Washington Times.

"There's some feeling that we know a lot more about damage information than we're saying... . That isn't the case," Williams said.

After the briefing, about 20 reporters followed a very senior defense official into the hallway for a 15-minute "background" session that yielded little more than the on-the-record briefing.

Kenan Block, a producer with "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour," uttered a dreaded phrase from the Vietnam era. He asked whether the Pentagon was worried about "a bit of a credibility gap growing here."

"If that were true, I would be concerned," the senior defense official said. "I understand the frustration of people wanting to know more."

But couldn't the American public see for itself that reporters were growing testy at the lack of information?

"I would not characterize the attitude in the briefing room today as testy," the official said.