Chris Hedges, a New York Times reporter, had just finished interviewing shopkeepers in Saudi Arabia yesterday when he was picked up by U.S. military authorities, detained for two to three hours and sent back to his hotel in Dhahran without his press credentials.

His offense? Trying to report on the Persian Gulf War from a small town near the Kuwaiti border and outside the official media "pools" set up by the Defense Department.

"The pools are bordering on dysfunctional," Hedges told National Public Radio. "Those trying to get out and report are prohibited from doing

so . . . .

"It's frequently impossible to do reporting on the situation when every conversation you have is being managed by the military," he said.

If a spate of similar incidents are any indication, Pentagon officials will return Hedges's credentials shortly and give him a lecture. But his brief detention points up the growing frustration among journalists who say the Pentagon is choking off coverage of the war by refusing to dispatch more than a handful of military-escorted pools with U.S. ground forces, and by barring those who venture into the desert on their own.

At stake, in the view of these critical journalists, is whether reporters have any hope of penetrating the fog that continues to hang over the war effort, or whether they will serve essentially as conveyor belts for the scanty information dispensed at official briefings and gleaned from the limited access afforded the pools thus far.

Defense officials offer three basic reasons for insisting that coverage be provided by small pools of journalists -- representing newspapers, television, radio, magazines and wire services -- who must give their colleagues left behind written reports of what they see and hear.

First, they say, the pools are necessary for the reporters' physical safety. Second, military officers must review the pool reports to prevent the release of information that could jeopardize U.S. forces.

Finally, officials say, it would simply be impractical to allow the more than 800 reporters now in Saudi Arabia to roam the desert battlefield at will. And poll after poll shows that most of the public sides with the Pentagon, in favoring restrictions on the press.

The recent battle at the Saudi Arabian border town of Khafji, in which pool reporters were kept miles away from the action, heightened fears that the military wants to allow only a sanitized version of the war to become public. It also dramatized the disharmony within the press corps.

When Robert Fisk, a British reporter for the Independent, approached a Marine unit outside Khafji, NBC reporter Brad Willis "started shouting abuse at me, telling me to go back to Dhahran and saying I would spoil it for the pool," Fisk said. "He called over a Marine public affairs officer. A Saudi policeman came over and threatened to pull my accreditation . . . .

"The people in the pool . . . have lost some of their critical faculties and become part of the military machine. This is very sad and humiliating for all of us."

To date, few photographs of wounded soldiers have been published or broadcast. Reporters in the gulf say they have been denied access to prisoner-of-war camps, B-52 pilots, AWACS planes, battleships, even chaplains and hospitals. Much of the Army's ground forces, including a major infantry division, have no reporters with them.

Instead, television screens have been filled with selectively released videos of "smart" bombs devastating their targets. There has been no way to gauge the number of "dumb" bombs that have missed their targets or damaged civilian neighborhoods.

With war being waged mainly from the skies, it is not clear whether unfettered press access to the troops would help reporters understand whether Pentagon assessments are overly optimistic or merely provide them with better quotes and pictures. But if a ground war begins, the degree of access will become crucial to providing an unvarnished picture of combat and casualties.

Questions about the pool system are "like asking whether a smoothly functioning dictatorship is working well," said Stanley Cloud, Time magazine's Washington bureau chief. "Yeah, it's working well, but we shouldn't have to put up with it. We're getting only the information the Pentagon wants us to get.

"This is an intolerable effort by the government to manage and control the press," he said. "We have ourselves to blame every bit as much as the Pentagon. We never should have agreed to this system in the first place."

The pool system was established by the Pentagon in 1984 in response to complaints that journalists had been excluded from the U.S. invasion of Grenada.

The 113 pool reporters, selected on the basis of how long their news organizations have been in Saudi Arabia, are broken into groups and assigned to different military units. The Pentagon decides where they should go and provides the transportation, leaving reporters no latitude to pursue stories they deem important. Many are making unauthorized trips like Hedges's because their pools have spent so little time in the field.

"We have someone who's been sitting in a hotel for the greater part of the last two weeks," said R.W. Apple Jr., who heads the New York Times's Dharhan bureau. "The Defense Department is determined to have this war covered on its own terms, through military briefings that are less informative than they were in Saigon and which cannot be -- except through heroic measures -- supplemented by going and seeing for oneself."

"I've promised to get more ground-combat pools out," replied Col. Bill Mulvey, director of the Pentagon's Joint Information Bureau. "I thought we were going to get them out earlier than this."

The apprehension of non-pool reporters has become something of a ritual for Mulvey's office. Authorities last week detained Associated Press reporter Mort Rosenblum for three hours in what an editor calls "strong-arm fashion" for reporting without an escort. A BBC television crew had its credentials removed for three days.

The debate over access has its roots in the Vietnam War, when journalists traveled wherever they could hitch a ride, bound only by an agreement to withhold sensitive military information. In only a handful of cases over more than a decade did reporters inadvertently disclose such information.

But the military faced a widening credibility gap as reporters learned from soldiers in the jungle that the war was not going as well as the briefers in Saigon insisted. Journalists say they are now paying the price for the military's belief that critical press coverage -- rather than the course of the war itself -- helped erode public support at home. Defense officials insist they are not hampering the press in Saudi Arabia for political reasons, but reporters have been told that many field commanders, some of whom were junior officers in Vietnam, do not want them along.

Thirteen publications and writers, including the Nation, Village Voice and Harper's, have sued the Pentagon over the restrictions, but no major American news organization has joined the suit.

"The press grew timid after Vietnam and Watergate because people said, 'Oh my god, you people are not good Americans,' " said Newsday columnist Sydney Schanberg, a plaintiff in the case who won a Pulitzer Prize for war coverage in Vietnam and Cambodia. He said major newspapers and television networks "are not eager to have a frontal confrontation with the executive branch and a very popular president."

Boisfeuillet Jones Jr., vice president and counsel of The Washington Post, said of the suit: "We just didn't think it was the right forum for us. We view it as a difficult case to win in court."

Charges that the military is censoring pool reports have largely faded. Mulvey acknowledged that some officers initially went too far in editing stories, such as changing reporter Frank Bruni's description of returning pilots from "giddy" to "proud."

Still, inhibitions imposed by the pool system can be subtle.

Bruni, a Detroit Free Press reporter, said the presence of a military "minder" reading his copy "has kind of a chilling effect. You're trying to portray military people as human beings; not everybody's a hero.

"When you have a situation where access is everything, and people in the same channels are looking at your stories, it's impossible not to be a little afraid that how much access you get will be affected by what you write."

AP reporter John King said of some military escorts, "If you ask a question they think is inappropriate . . . {they} will interrupt and say, 'That's a political question.' I think we have every right to ask these kids if they think this is worth dying for."

Joe Albright, a Cox Newspapers reporter and a pool coordinator, said that "the big issue is we are not able to get journalists where journalists think the story is." He said Pentagon officials rejected his request that a pool be dispatched to the closest hospital during the fighting in Khafji.

Some pools are so poorly positioned that "you have people out in the middle of nowhere doing nothing," said Washington Post reporter Guy Gugliotta. Mulvey said some Army units are moving into position and not ready to accept reporters, but that he is working on numerous media requests.

The danger for non-pool reporters was underscored when CBS reporter Bob Simon and his crew, traveling on their own, disappeared at the Kuwaiti border. But Schanberg said that providing reporters with military vehicles and escorts is "the worst possible thing for a civilian's health. It's like putting a bulls-eye on you. The best thing you can do is wear something akin to a Hawaiian shirt, so no soldier could possibly mistake you for a combatant."

Edward Cody, a veteran foreign correspondent for The Post, said his pool reports are often delayed in reaching both his non-pool colleagues and his own paper because the military relays them on "Humvee" jeeps that must hand them off to other jeeps three times before reaching Dhahran.

"The first day of the war, my story went nowhere," he said. "You turn over control of your copy to them and they don't care whether it gets there or not. It's not part of their culture. We, the newspapers, did it by buying into this stupid system of take-me-along."

When Iraqi troops first captured Khafji, the Pentagon offered a spate of conflicting reports -- that no Marines were involved, that Saudi and Qatari forces had quickly retaken the town -- which turned out to be false. Only those who broke the Pentagon's rules had an opportunity to check the initial accounts with on-scene reporting.

"The pool showed up {outside Khafji} 18, 19 hours after the fighting started. . . and was about 10 miles back," said AP's King, who slipped into Khafji before the battle began. When the pool arrived, King, Gugliotta and Albright were among the non-pool journalists told they would be reported to Saudi authorities unless they left the area -- although the Saudis formed their own pool and took other American reporters into Khafji.

Television executives are also frustrated by the process. The Khafji battle "didn't yield the kind of pictures that one associates with a fairly substantial clash of armies," said George Watson, ABC's Washington bureau chief. "We would like, within the bounds of sanity, to be reasonably close to the action."