Responding to calls from the media for more access to U.S. military personnel in Saudi Arabia, Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney said yesterday that decisions governing news coverage of the conflict are in the hands of the Saudi government.

"I do not have the final authority over what kind of access the government of Saudi Arabia grants to our press," Cheney told reporters at a news conference with President Bush and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Colin L. Powell in Kennebunkport, Maine.

However, describing the U.S. government as an advocate of "significant coverage," Cheney said the Bush administration would work with the Saudis to "provide as much access" as possible.

Newspaper editors and network television bureau chiefs said yesterday they feared the Saudis may cut back the number of journalists allowed in the region just days after granting 30-day visas to about 120 media representatives to supplement the official Pentagon press pool of 20 journalists.

According to reports from Saudi Arabia, the Ministry of Information had suggested it could not cope with the number of media people in the country and may be planning to evict them before the end of the week. However, last night Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams said the Saudis were still granting new visas.

Executives from 11 of the nation's major news organizations, including The Washington Post, are drafting a joint letter to President Bush asking him to use his influence to gain full media access to U.S. military personnel in Saudi Arabia. The letter is expected to be delivered to Bush today.

Criticizing the Pentagon-sponsored pool, which comprises 20 news representatives who are obliged to share their reports with the rest of the U.S. media, the news executives said the pool arrangement has produced "minimum" access to events in the crisis.

Pool journalists have been told that "for security reasons" they cannot report the names of soldiers they interview or say where the interviews took place.

Calling for a system of accrediting U.S. reporters in Saudi Arabia through the American military as a possible solution, the letter states: "Never in American history has this country been faced with as large a commitment of manpower and equipment with as little opportunity for the press to report."

Asked at yesterday's news conference how families of American servicemen and women could be guaranteed "free, open and complete" press coverage, Cheney replied:

"The fact of the matter is, we are in {the Saudis'} country at their request. . . . They are a very traditional society. They've got certain standards and norms, certain ways of doing business."

By the same token, he added, "I think it is important that we have an adequate flow of information to the American people about what our young men and women are doing in Saudi Arabia and I'm hopeful that we'll be able to arrange that."

Leonard Downie Jr., managing editor of The Washington Post, said it was important to keep families informed about the welfare of their "sons and daughters, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters."

He said it was also important that there was no repeat of the Grenada and Panama invasions when reporters were not allowed to witness the first few days of combat, during which there were later allegations of excessive use of U.S. firepower.

"We think it would be a grave mistake if anything were to happen with the American military in Saudi Arabia which was not reported by the American media," said Downie. "We think it is in the military's interests that Americans have full reporting of what is happening to the troops abroad."