Seventeen news organizations knew Friday that the U.S. attack on Afghanistan was imminent when the Pentagon summoned their reporters for aircraft carrier duty.

There was an implicit understanding that the journalists would keep it quiet -- and no one spilled the beans.

"We have great confidence that the media covering this have and will continue to operate in a responsible fashion," Torie Clarke, the Pentagon's chief spokeswoman, said yesterday. "It went very well."

Douglas Jehl of the New York Times, Steve Vogel of The Washington Post, Yarislov Trofimov of the Wall Street Journal, Bill Glauber of the Baltimore Sun, Walter Rodgers of CNN and Jeffrey Kofman of ABC were among those dispatched to the USS Carl Vinson in the North Arabian Sea, where F-18 and F-14 warplanes launched bombing raids against Afghan targets Sunday.

"We are defending our families and our homeland," the Times quoted the ship's captain as saying.

"It was like sitting in a tree and having kids shoot bottle rockets up at you," a commander named Biff -- the Navy did not allow the use of last names -- told The Post after his first mission. (Biff also popped up on CNN.)

The more than 40 journalists summoned by the Pentagon also came from NBC, CBS, Fox, the Associated Press, Reuters, Time, Sky News, Bahrain television, the Times of London, Black Star and Britain's ITN. Some were "embedded" (to use the military's term) on the USS Enterprise, as well as a guided-missile cruiser and a guided-missile destroyer.

Media organizations, for their part, aren't satisfied. "It was a good start to get us on board those ships," said Robin Sproul, ABC's Washington bureau chief. "But we're very interested in getting access to U.S. troops wherever they are."

"The initial grade is okay," said Janet Leissner, CBS's Washington bureau chief. "We would like some more access out in the field, just to be able to get some of our correspondents a little closer to the lines."

"We have basically had no access, except for Vogel on a ship in the Indian Ocean," said Phil Bennett, The Post's assistant managing editor for foreign news. He said allowing reporters on aircraft carriers was fine, but "that access rarely yields the kind of information we think is decisive to understanding the scope, nature or success of the operations."

Stay tuned: The war is only two days old.

Footnote: Newsweek stopped the presses Sunday and got three pages on the war into 70 percent of its press run, while Time added some new material to about 40 percent of its copies.

Focus on Fleischer Ari Fleischer is getting roughed up these days -- not over administration policy, but for his own words.

Ever since the White House press secretary cautioned that Americans "need to watch what they say" in the wake of the terrorist attacks, some commentators are accusing him of trying to chill dissent, especially in the media.

Not so, says Fleischer. "I think I was more blunt than required," he concedes. The message he was trying to convey was that "people need to be thoughtful about the things that they say."

Until recently, writes Newsday columnist Robert Reno, "Ari Fleischer had a deserved reputation as one of Washington's smoothest operators, a man of exquisite discretion who could alternately flatter and patronize the self-important White House press corps in a manner that always made it seem he'd gotten the better of his inferiors." But Fleischer's "watch what they say" comment was "so appalling it was the equivalent of stepping in a fresh dog dropping."

Newsweek's Jonathan Alter questions "whether the White House spokesman should be a thought policeman," but ABC's Ted Koppel says the comments did "not sound like a warning from the White House. . . . Ari Fleischer got a bum rap."

At his Sept. 26 briefing, Fleischer was asked about "Politically Incorrect" host Bill Maher, who had said, "We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away."

Fleischer called that "a terrible thing to say" and said Americans "need to watch what they say. . . . This is not a time for remarks like that; there never is."

He was aiming more at a climate of intolerance, Fleischer says. He noted at the top of the briefing that an American Sikh had been killed. He says his response was also influenced by a North Carolina man who left him a phone message that said "the good Muslims have to leave because we don't know who's who. We have to get rid of the good ones with the bad ones."

What's more, says Fleischer, he has also criticized the Rev. Jerry Falwell (for blaming the attacks on gays, abortion supporters and civil libertarians) and Rep. John Cooksey (R-La.), who said airport security should focus on someone "with a diaper on his head."

"I've been consistent in saying they were inappropriate, unfortunate or unwise," Fleischer says. "If you don't answer, very often the story is, 'White House looks the other way, fails to say anything.' "

The controversy gained steam when the spokesman's "watch what they say" comment, ah, mysteriously disappeared from the White House transcript -- which Fleischer calls an unintentional "mistake."

Salon correspondent Jake Tapper says he initially thought Fleischer "was trying to get reporters not to report and dissenters not to express themselves." But on reflection, Tapper believes Fleischer "was trying to say this was a very, very sensitive time and people just need to be a little more careful about what comes out of their mouths than in the days of Gary Condit."

So how does Fleischer feel getting kicked around? He deflects the question: "The press is a zealous defender of First Amendment rights, and that's one of the reasons why we're going to win this war -- because people are free to say whatever they want."

Pitching In Chris Chivers of the New York Times wrote a moving piece nine days ago about life at Ground Zero: "I walked out, threw away my suit, slept, put on jeans, walked back, found a shovel, started to work."

But by working as a volunteer amid the World Trade Center rubble, Chivers got access to a site from which journalists had been banned, prompting one city official to call his approach "ethically questionable and offensive."

Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis praises the ex-Marine for "a distinguished piece of reporting and writing," saying: "Chris's motives were both altruistic and journalistic. On occasion Chris was asked his name, and he gave it. No one ever asked his occupation, or asked if he was a reporter, and he did not volunteer the fact. He was never asked to leave." Times rules allow reporters to sometimes "remain silent on our identity."

Radio Rumors On Sept. 11, callers told New York radio stations WABC and WPLJ that some people in an Arabic section of Paterson, N.J., were celebrating the attacks.

Totally bogus, says city spokesman Bob Grant. He's so mad he has demanded transcripts from the Disney-owned stations and may demand equal time.

Grant is particularly steamed at WPLJ's "The Big Show With Scott and Todd," calling in to chide hosts Scott Shannon and Todd Pettengill. "They called me a moron and I called them mendacious," he says.

"These guys are jerks. We have turned over the public airwaves to a bunch of miscreant types who think all this is part of the shtick they do for their ratings. They dump everything into the ridicule-hopper as grist for their mills. . . . They should probably wear Friends of Osama buttons because they are giving aid and comfort to the enemy."

Curtis Sliwa, a WABC host also criticized by Grant, says callers told him of a celebration that "they felt was crazy, that was horrible, so we reported that based on the calls." Sliwa went to Paterson the next day and says people told him that the cheering was done by about a dozen bicycle-riding teenagers.

Paterson officials are "in total denial," says Sliwa. "They'd rather shoot the messenger."

White House press secretary Ari Fleischer's "watch what they say" remark has generated reams of commentary.