The Food and Drug Administration was already more than six months late in ruling on the hotly-debated question of whether the "morning-after pill" should be more easily accessible to women, but last Friday afternoon the agency changed gears when it had a decision to announce.

At 3 p.m., when Congress was out of town and millions of Americans (and more than a few journalists) were headed for the beach or the mountains, the agency sent out an e-mail message that it would be holding a news conference at its Rockville headquarters one hour later.

That was when FDA Commissioner Lester M. Crawford revealed that the agency would neither approve nor reject the application because of unresolved regulatory issues. Instead of delivering a promised decision -- Crawford's nomination to his post went forward in the Senate only because of a promise that the Plan B issue would be resolved soon -- the commissioner said that a formal, and possibly time-consuming, rule-making process would have to commence.

This was a significant and surprising change in the FDA's position, and raised inevitable questions about whether the Bush administration was making a political decision in the guise of a regulatory one. Many social and religious conservatives oppose efforts to make emergency contraception more easily available, and had been calling the White House to make their position known.

After Crawford made his statement, the news conference was opened to the seven reporters present, with as many as 100 more listening on through teleconference, the FDA said. Four largely procedural questions were asked from the floor, and then the news conference abruptly ended. No questions were taken by phone, and many questions were left unanswered.

Many critics of the decision charged that Crawford had sought to bury the controversial Plan B news. But Suzanne Trevino, FDA acting assistant commissioner for media relations, defended the timing. She said the decision was announced within hours of being made, and just after the stock market closed. She also said that Crawford had promised a decision by Sept. 1, and wanted to keep his commitment.

The Bush administration is hardly the first to release potentially bad or controversial news late on Fridays -- when news operations, and the public, tend to be least tuned in -- but it has emerged as one of the more consistent practitioners.

On Friday, June 10, for instance, the Agriculture Department announced at 8 p.m. that mad cow disease had possibly been found in a second American animal -- news that could upset the beef market. The timing was unusual because the animal had first been tested more than six months before.

When USDA released the news two weeks ago that the animal did indeed have mad cow disease, it was again on a Friday afternoon when many reporters couldn't make it to the department headquarters, and a teleconference was set up. After a statement from Secretary Mike Johanns, reporters began asking questions. Soon after, the telephone hookup failed and was never restored.

-- Marc Kaufman

FDA Commissioner Lester M. Crawford announced late Friday that the long-awaited decision on the "morning-after pill" would be delayed.