The Defense Department yesterday finalized rules for coverage of combat in the Persian Gulf region, including advance "security review" of all stories, despite continuing complaints of censorship from top media executives.

The rules, boiled down from a longer version criticized by news organizations, still require reporters to "remain with your military escort at all times, until released, and follow their instructions regarding your activities."

The guidelines also list a variety of combat details, such as size and geographic location of U.S. forces, that cannot be reported. They say the military will not withhold material "just because it is embarrassing or contains criticism" but will do so if military officials decide that it would "jeopardize" the "safety" of U.S. and allied forces during a war with Iraq.

The action came as a letter of protest from the four television network presidents -- ABC's Roone Arledge, NBC's Michael Gartner, CBS's Eric Ober and CNN's Tom Johnson -- was delivered to Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney. Henry Muller, managing editor of Time magazine, and Benjamin C. Bradlee, executive editor of The Washington Post, have written separately to Cheney.

"There's no reason in American combat correspondence history for this to take place," said Howell Raines, Washington bureau chief of the New York Times. "I'm not ready to say it's over just because they say it's over. . . . We must stiffen our spines and raise our voices." Raines said he finds the military escort provision particularly "offensive."

Michael Getler, assistant managing editor for foreign news at The Post, said that "it's a terrible mistake to have what amounts to censorship. It's going to be a nightmare for the press and for newspaper readers and television viewers . . . and will eventually poison the atmosphere between the reporters trying to cover the war and public affairs officers trying to control what's being reported."

Pete Williams, assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, told reporters yesterday that no censorship would be involved because the Pentagon could not compel journalists not to publish or broadcast a story. "Ultimately, all we can do is appeal to you . . . . There is no Official Secrets Act," he said.

But George Watson, ABC's Washington bureau chief who delivered the letter from the network presidents, said the Pentagon's "recourse would be to remove the offender from the pool or revoke credentials."

News organizations expect reporters in Saudi Arabia to be heavily dependent on U.S. military transportation if hostilities break out because of the logistical difficulties of covering a desert war. They have asked for a return to voluntary guidelines followed, with few violations, during the Vietnam War, when reporting was not subject to prior military review.