Walter Cronkite says the Pentagon's system for dealing with journalists in the Persian Gulf war is doing the public such a disservice that he'd prefer reporters be censored but free to range over the battle front.

But Pete Williams, the Defense Department's chief spokesman, said the former CBS anchorman's idea wouldn't work. He said war moves too fast these days to permit correspondents to hot-dog it on their own, showing up on a unit's perimeter unexpectedly in a four-wheel-drive vehicle and expecting to be welcomed. They'd probably be shot by sentries, he said."We can't say, `Y'all come to the battlefield,' " Williams said.

Williams and Cronkite laid out their ideas for war coverage Wednesday at a hearing by the Senate Governmental Operations Committee on the Pentagon's press restrictions.

Correspondents denounce news pools

Three correspondents recently back from the war zone testified that the Pentagon system of limiting coverage to a handful of news pools, who must then share their reporting with their colleagues, has broken down.

Like Cronkite, they advocated open coverage, although they did not share his view on the necessity of censorship.

Malcolm W. Browne of The New York Times, Cragg Hines of the Houston Chronicle and Frank Aukofer of the Milwaukee Journal said the pool system was envisioned only as a stopgap means to put reporters on hand for the opening hours of an engagement.

After that, they said, it was assumed reporters would be free to cover the war on their own and competitively. That's the way the Vietnam War was covered, with correspondents usually hopping on a helicopter and spending a week or so with troops to capture the sense of what they go through.

`Coverage almost non-existent'

In the gulf, the Pentagon procedures make that kind of coverage almost non-existent. Only a relative handful get to be with the half-million U.S. troops.

"Exclusive coverage by pools allows military commanders to veto coverage of their units or to arrange it to their self-promoting advantage," Hines said.

Browne, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting from Vietnam for The Associated Press, said he had never experienced such obstacles covering war except for the news blackout imposed by Pakistan, the losing side, in the 1971 war between India and Pakistan.

Cronkite urges free hand, review

Cronkite said reporters should be put in uniform, given military drivers and permitted to go to wherever the action is, with their dispatches or television tape subject to review by civilian lawyer censors, charged with eliminating only military secrets.

That was the method in use when he covered World War II as a young United Press correspondent, he said, and it worked.

Cronkite said "the number of correspondents wandering freely behind the lines must be controlled," but that could be done by accrediting reporters for major news organizations and letting them rotate.

Of critical importance to a democracy, he said, even if it means keeping the news from getting out for a day or two, is making sure a reporter is on hand to give the public - and history - a firsthand account of warfare.

"What we have now is pre-censorship, by telling you what you can't see," Cronkite said. "I'd rather have post-censorship where you could argue it out after you get your story."

Pentagon official defends pools

Williams said the number of Pentagon-accredited reporters in pools would rise to 192 by the end of this week.

"I know reporters are frustrated that they can't all get out to see the troops," he said. "But I believe the system we have now is fair, that it gets a reasonable number of journalists out to see the action, and that the American people will get the accounting they deserve of what their husbands and wives and sons and daughters are doing under arms half a world away."