The disappearance this week of Bob Simon, veteran CBS News foreign correspondent, and a three-man crew near Kuwait was oddly foreshadowed in the days before the Persian Gulf standoff became a full-blown war.

Simon, an award-winning Vietnam War reporter,had spoken openly and often about the Pentagon's plans to restrict and "sanitize" press coverage in case of a shooting war in the gulf. The New York Times on Jan. 15 reported Simon saying that military press officers had already lectured him on how to cover events.

That same day, Simon was quoted in USA Today: "The brass is still convinced that the press had a lot to do with the political fallout from the {Vietnam} war, so they are trying to do what they can to prevent those things from happening again." In Vietnam, "it was easy to get information and access," Simon said. But the action in the gulf would be limited to pools of reporters overseen y military officers.

"That is not to say people are not going to try and break free," he predicted.

Apparently Simon, producer Peter Bluff, cameraman Roberto Alvarez and sound man Juan Caldera were "breaking free" of U.S. press restrictions in Saudi Arabia when they got into a four-wheel-drive land cruiser and drove toward the border of Iraqi-occupied Kuwait early this week.

Saudi military officials found that vehicle Thursday, out of gas, near the border. The men were missing. Footprints in the sand led in the direction of Kuwait. CBS had last heard from Simon late Monday morning.

Among the items Simon and his crew left behind was a videotape that was broadcast last night on the "CBS Evening News." It showed a caravan of U.S. soldiers and materiel heading for the border, as well as a shot of Simon in a border town asking a Saudi militiaman for directions. There was no narration by Simon.

CBS anchor Dan Rather, prefacing the video, said, "We remain hopeful and optimistic" about the fate of Simon, Bluff, Alvarez and Caldera. This sentiment was echoed by others throughout CBS News yesterday.

"I think everybody has a lot of confidence in these people's experience," said Barbara Cohen, CBS News Washington bureau chief. "These are people who are not cowboys. They know what they're doing."

In his 24 years at CBS, Simon, 49, has covered armed conflicts in Beirut, Romania, China, India and Central America. Bluff is the London bureau chief and has reported extensively in the Middle East.

"Obviously, there's deep concern and worry," said network spokesman Tom Goodman. But "what gives us all so much hope is that this is one of our elite teams."

In fact, John Wallach, foreign editor for Hearst Newspapers and a friend of Simon's, praised his boldness yesterday.

"You've got pack journalism over there," Wallach said from his Washington office, "and he's one of the very few reporters who showed initiative to try to cover this war without the censorship that's been imposed on everybody. Bob is a great journalist. What he's doing is what we should all be doing."

This wasn't Simon's first foray to the Kuwaiti border without military authorization. On Friday, Jan. 18, Simon reported on border skirmishes involving U.S. Marines on a classified mission. "The Marines are getting shelled day and night, 70 rounds in the last 24 hours," and were calling in air and sea artillery support, he said during the evening news. He ended the report: "Bob Simon, CBS News, in the no man's land between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait."

Simon was chastised by U.S. military press officers for that venture, according to the Chicago Tribune, though Goodman said "I am not aware of any admonishment."

CBS has been contacting government officials -- American, Saudi, even Iraqi -- for help in locating Simon and the others. After Iraq's ambassador to Japan was interviewed by Lesley Stahl on "America Tonight," he was asked if he'd heard anything, said Goodman.

He added that CBS has been in constant contact with Simon's wife, Francoise, and his daughter Tanya, a college student. A British reporter also has been reported missing. He was last seen Jan. 18.