On Wednesday, the deputy commander of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf says his troops will not be ready for war by the United Nations' Jan. 15 deadline.

A day later, a senior Pentagon official, speaking "authoritatively" for Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney, as The Washington Post put it, disputes that statement and says air strikes against Iraq could begin Jan. 15.

Two senators returning from the gulf say U.S. commanders told them that American air strikes could secure victory in five days. Their comments come two weeks after top military officials tell Congress to expect a full-scale ground war.

What is the public to believe? How much is saber rattling, how much straight shooting and how much campaign-style spin control? How much of it represents serious debate -- over policy, strategy and tactics -- being carried out by officialdom through the media? What guidance can news organizations give their audiences about a 4 1/2-month-old confrontation against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in which no one is quite sure where the truth lies?

"There's no question the administration has tried to use us to scare Saddam Hussein," said Stanley Cloud, Time magazine's Washington bureau chief. "They're quite open about it."

"We go into any discussion on this issue with the understanding that the Pentagon and the government will try to get us to serve their interests," said Howell Raines, Washington bureau chief of the New York Times. "And if that means misleading us, trying to corral us, trying to cover up, they're going to do that."

As journalists try to "work our way through this fog," as Raines put it, readers might bear in mind that those reporting the twists and turns of Persian Gulf strategy are never certain they are getting the full picture. If the White House is trying to avoid war by threatening a war, that leaves reporters constantly wondering if they are being fed disinformation.

On the other hand, said Brookings Institution analyst Stephen Hess, the administration may be determined to attack Iraq. "If it would help achieve that end to mislead the enemy -- and in the process you mislead the American people -- I think that's a price they would pay," he said. "I think they'd consider that honest lying."

The latest round of spin and counter-spin began Wednesday when Lt. Gen. Calvin A.H. Waller told reporters in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, that his troops will not be ready for combat by Jan. 15, the U.N. deadline for an Iraqi pullout from Kuwait.

Some administration officials complained that Waller had undercut their strategy of trying to force Saddam into withdrawing. Others tried to backtrack. "What he really said," White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said of Waller, "is they might not be as ready as they would like to be . . . for all the contingencies."

By Thursday, the administration line was that Waller's comments "were part of U.S. efforts to keep the Iraqis off guard," as the Washington Times put it. "When I was in the Marine Corps, one of the important principles of warfare that I learned was that it is critical to preserve the element of surprise," Secretary of State James A. Baker III said.

In fact, as several news stories noted, what Waller said was not very different from what Cheney and Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had told Congress a week earlier. And military reporters long have known that the Pentagon was nowhere near its goal of massing more than 400,000 troops in Saudi Arabia.

Why, then, did Waller's comments produce front-page headlines? Most likely, journalists said, because he made them to reporters traveling with Cheney and Powell in Saudi Arabia -- and perhaps because President Bush's latest diplomatic initiative, and the gulf story itself, had been stalled for days.

Such candor can be dangerous for senior military officials. In September, Cheney fired his Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Michael J. Dugan, for discussing U.S. contingency war plans, including massive air raids against Baghdad that would target Saddam and his family.

"There's an attempt by the White House and Baker to do spin control, but it's very difficult for them to control unless they're going to silence people in the military," said Jack Nelson, Washington bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times.

Veteran defense reporters say they believe they can get honest answers from generals and admirals they have come to trust, as long as the officers are not quoted by name.

"I'm trying to put the bluster and tough rhetoric in the context of what's possible on the ground," said Stewart Powell, national security correspondent for Hearst Newspapers. "I've always thought the Jan. 15 deadline was a false deadline. . . . I find the military people are pretty candid about what they can do and can't do."

Washington Post defense reporter Molly Moore, who has gone to Saudi Arabia twice during the crisis, said that "obviously the military is using us to the hilt. They take us out to see their toys and tell us how great this tank is, and how great this tank-killing plane is, using that to send signals to Saddam Hussein. You've got 250 reporters sitting in the desert looking for stories to do."

But Moore said that "you won't know whether a lot of this high-tech stuff we bought during the Reagan buildup is good unless there's combat."

The resulting uncertainty has left journalists awash in a sea of speculation, with experts spinning one scenario after another about potential battle plans and estimated casualties.

"I've talked to soldiers on the ground who say this could be an arduous, long-running, incredibly bloody conflict," Hearst's Powell said. "It's wishful thinking to believe this could be over in a matter of days."

One explanation for conflicting accounts in the news media is that officials often seek to influence policy decisions through leaked news stories and selective interviews that support their point of view. Sometimes they are talking to one another in such stories, as well as the public at large.

Another reason for the conflicting scenarios is that "you can dig up a retired Army colonel to say just about anything," said David Lynch, editor of Defense Week.

"The demands of daily journalism are that you take the temperature of the story every day and give people your best guess of where we are," Lynch said. "So one day we run a story saying, 'Today it looks like we're a little closer to war,' and the next day you say 'No, no, we're a little closer to peace.' The poor reader must be dizzy by now."

Several journalists said they are especially skeptical about Bush's statements because the president is speaking to at least two audiences as he tries both to reassure the American public and intimidate Saddam. But even here there is disagreement.

"If the president of the United States says he's going to blow Iraq to smithereens on Jan. 15, should we try to read his mind and figure out whether he means it or not?" Cloud said. "We have no choice but to assume that when he says it he means it, absent some evidence to the contrary."