After a chartered tugboat carrying a British television crew nearly rammed a U.S. warship in its zeal to cover U.S. ships escorting reflagged Kuwaiti oil tankers through the Persian Gulf, military leaders added the incident to their arsenal of complaints about media coverage of the controversial operations.

The guided-missile frigate USS Hawes narrowly averted a collision with the tugboat, the Big Orange One, but a smaller tugboat came close enough to snap four feet off an antenna poking over the side of the warship, according to Pentagon officials.

The Aug. 23 mishap "has further exacerbated military-media relations both here and in the gulf," Pentagon spokesman Robert B. Sims wrote in a memorandum to Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger. "It also has given impetus to those who would terminate on-scene press coverage altogether."

The Persian Gulf convoy operations have brought an invasion of journalists up and down the gulf coasts, with their own armadas of helicopters and boats, Richard Weintraub of The Washington Post Foreign Service reported from Dubai.

The massive news media presence in the gulf as well as intense media interest in Washington have led to pitched battles within the Pentagon hierarchy over the role of the media in covering military operations.

It has pitted military leaders who believe media coverage could jeopardize the safety of the military personnel against other Defense Department officials who argue for the public's right to know details of one of the largest and most costly U.S. military buildups since the Vietnam war.

The U.S.-escorted convoys also have provided the first real test of the controversial "media pools," established by the Pentagon for war coverage after the news media were virtually shut out of live coverage of the U.S. invasion of Grenada in 1983.

When the Navy began escorting the reflagged Kuwaiti tankers in July, the Pentagon warned that U.S. Navy ships and military aircraft would not tolerate close encounters in the Persian Gulf with media-chartered helicopters and boats.

"Our message to the management of news organizations . . . has been clear," Sims wrote in the memo to Weinberger, dated Aug. 26. "When they come too close to our ships or aircraft in the gulf, they are endangering the lives of their crews."

That has not deterred some journalists whose operations have been hampered by the extreme weather conditions in the gulf region, which alternately bring thick brown haze and choking sandstorms. One newspaper headline writer dubbed a column on the coverage: "Attack of the network chopper squadrons."

The Hawes did not fire at the British-chartered tugboat because it was familiar with the Big Orange One. Instead, when the frigate's crew noted that the tug was on a collision course, they maneuvered to evade the Big Orange One.

Weintraub reported that television network coverage is built around helicopters and boats, like the Big Orange One. All networks have at least one helicopter chartered on a full-time basis -- which means a minimum of eight hours a day of flight time and more than that if more than one pilot is available.

Most television networks also have been posting camera teams on boats at critical points along the 500-mile length of the gulf, at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz and off Bahrain. Most of the television network's vessels are tugboats and supply barges about 50 to 60 feet long.

Coverage, both on the scene and at the Pentagon, has been made even more difficult by the military's attempts to keep the schedules of the convoys secret.

"It is very difficult," said Jerry Lamprecht, NBC's vice president for news coverage. Finding convoys "is like finding a needle in a haystack day after day."

The chartered boats, flying time and expanded crews also have meant tremendous expenses for news organizations. The cost of chartering a boat or plane or helicopter can cost up to $2,000 a day, according to network officials and reporters.

For the Pentagon-sanctioned "media pool" the problems have been different. The Pentagon had conducted five dress rehearsals of the pool operation over the past three years, testing whether journalists could be trusted to keep an operation secret after they had been given several hours notice to appear at Andrews Air Force Base to cover a military event at an unknown destination.

On July 18 the call was real. The pool, preselected from a rotating list of news organizations, was whisked to the Persian Gulf to accompany the first escort of reflagged tankers. The group would send news dispatches, film and photographs from the convoy for use by media throughout the world.

The Pentagon politics that led to the forming of that pool were fierce, according to numerous Defense Department and Navy officials.

"It was like pulling teeth," said one Pentagon official. "There was constant opposition . . . . There were those who thought we would be better off if the press didn't cover anything."

Most of that opposition comes from top military leaders, including some members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to several Pentagon officials.

"They were just reflecting the concerns of the on-scene commander," countered one military official.

Even though three pools have been assembled so far to cover Persian Gulf operations, Pentagon officials said there is still strong military resistance to future pools.

Some of those military officials have complained that press coverage of operational details could alert the Iranians or other potential adversaries to the movements of the ships in the region. Journalists argue that they have not aired or printed the exact locations of ships and that the ship movements are so large that they are clearly visible to any observer in the area.

Rear Adm. Harold J. Bernsen, commander of the Pentagon's Middle East Task Force based in the Persian Gulf, discussing the attempts to keep ship movements secret, told the most recent media pool that "it would be premature to say we fooled anyone other than the press. Perhaps we gave the Iranians difficulty, but {we} suspect they have good intelligence to follow us.

Opposition to news coverage of the transports is not confined to the Pentagon. Both the Pentagon media pools and journalists working in the area have encountered resistance from Persian Gulf nations, which are highly sensitive to any type of news coverage. Some nations agreed to allow the media pool to be flown into their air bases only on the condition that their assistance not be publicized.

Early in the escorting operations a large group of reporters and camera crews arrived at the Dubai airport, upsetting local officials who were uncertain how to deal with the large contingent of journalists.

"We put the local people on tilt," said Don DeCesare, foreign editor for CBS News. "And I'm not certain I blame them." Some of the journalists were detained at the airport about 24 hours, then were allowed into the country to do their work, he said.

There have been a few glitches in the pool operation. Some reporters complained that the first report was not released for almost a day after it was filed. Another journalist complained that the Pentagon deleted reports that American naval officers and the skipper of the reflagged Bridgeton sipped beers on the tanker after it was damaged by a mine. A patrol boat that failed to meet one of the Navy vessels to pick up videotapes of the first convoy, delaying the television visuals.

The Defense Department public affairs office has been one of the strongest Pentagon advocates of the pool arrangement. Even Defense Secretary Weinberger has praised the efforts of the media pool. Members of the pool heard the explosion when the tanker Bridgeton hit a mine in the gulf during the first convoy, and many Pentagon officials said they used the initial media reports on the incident as their best sources of information.

There have even been instances when the media played an active role in the Persian Gulf operations. During the early intensive hunts for mines in the Gulf of Oman and some areas of the Persian Gulf, an NBC News crew in a chartered helicopter identified a mine floating near a tanker not involved in the U.S. convoy operations, according to NBC's Lamprecht. The crew couldn't make radio contact with the ship, so they landed on the deck of another nearby tanker to warn the crew.