Maybe a federal judge's decision this week to go along with the Pentagon in barring reporters from Dover Air Force Base when American war dead are returned to the facility from the Persian Gulf is good law. Maybe.

But the Pentagon's plan itself is certainly not good public policy.There is a long line of legal precedents by which military commanders have the ultimate control over military bases. But the Pentagon still offers a lame excuse for barring the news media from Dover, the military's primary mortuary.

The Pentagon insists that press coverage, including live TV reports, would interfere with operations at Dover. Yet such coverage was permitted when military caskets returned from the invasion of Grenada and from the bombing of Marine barracks in Beirut.

So it's hard to avoid the suspicion that the Pentagon wants to keep public support for the Persian Gulf war from eroding and is afraid of what might happen once Americans see a long line of caskets being unloaded at Dover.

In other words, the Pentagon doesn't trust the public to handle bad news. Someone needs to tell the brass that it's hard for the public to trust those who don't trust the public.