WASHINGTON (AP) _ Chuck de Caro, a television reporter turned entrepreneur, spent his life savings developing a sophisticated, in-flight video system that could beam back live battlefield images.

With the start of the Gulf War providing a backdrop, he made his pitch in 1991 to the Pentagon and got a warm reception, documents and interviews show.

Just three years later, the Navy has such a system up and running. An American success story?

Not so, says de Caro. He claims the Navy stole the idea after meeting with him more than two dozen times, leaving him out in the cold with no compensation.

''I would like to settle this without going to court, but if I have to do that, I will,'' said de Caro, a former Cable News Network special assignments correspondent. ''I've spent seven years, and almost all of my life's savings, on this.''

The Navy denies it appropriated the concept, saying it had the technology in the works at the time de Caro made his pitch for his so-called Aerobureau system.

But a former high-ranking Defense Department official, who was involved in the negotiations in 1991, disputes that claim.

''I thought it was dynamite, and I knew for a fact we had nothing like it,'' said Bob Gaskin, then an Air Force colonel serving on the staff of Bush administration Defense Secretary Dick Cheney.

''We began to open doors for Chuck, and one of those doors was with the Navy. I can bet you with the sun-coming-up tomorrow certainty that the Navy never even had the thought in the back of their minds until Chuck walked in the door. They just ripped him off,'' said Gaskin, who is now retired.

De Caro's situation bears certain similarities to the Inslaw matter, a case in which a small computer software manufacturing company accused the Justice Department of stealing a software program for use in tracking cases. In a protracted and unresolved legal dispute, a federal appeals court has overturned on legal technicalities a bankruptcy court judge's ruling that the Justice Department pirated the product.

Armed with memos that suggest the Pentagon was extremely interested in his project, de Caro has found support from an unlikely duo in Congress.

Reps. Leslie Byrne, a Virginia Democrat, and Robert Dornan, a Republican from California, are taking on the Navy, which has failed to provide any documentation to back its story - including who produced the Navy's system, when it was conceived, and how much it cost.

Byrne complained in a Feb. 3 letter to Navy Secretary John Dalton that a Navy report on Aerobureau ''misled Congress'' by suggesting the Navy had similar technology before de Caro approached military officials.

In fact, Byrne wrote, the Navy suddenly produced a system similar to de Caro's just a few weeks after he had made his final, detailed pitch in November 1993.

Dornan was so impressed by de Caro's plan that in 1992 he inserted language in a budget bill that would have required the Navy to allow de Caro to develop Aerobureau through a one-year, $5 million contract.

''I really feel badly that Chuck came up with this excellent idea and it's being taken away from him,'' Dornan said.

But in a letter responding to Byrne, Nora Slatkin, the Navy's assistant secretary for research and development, insisted de Caro's idea was not unique.

''The idea for this system originated in-house and was not taken from Aerobureau's concept,'' Slotkin wrote in her April 15 letter. ''I hope you will agree that the Navy neither appropriated Aerobureau's intellectual property nor misled Congress. Although similar in capability, it is not a clone of the Aerobureau system.''

Cmdr. Steve Pietropaoli, a Navy spokesman, said he had no comment beyond Slatkin's letter.

The Navy for years has had the technology to beam back only still photos, taken from U.S. surveillance planes, of battlefield action anywhere in the world.

De Caro's idea was to create technology that would give the Pentagon continuous video images, much like newscasts do today by broadcasting via satellite from remote locations.

In 1990, he refit a 30-year-old, four-engine turbo-prop plane into a flying broadcast center complete with editing studios, long-range cameras, infrared devices, cameras that worked in dim light, and satellite communications to beam the video back to a ground studio.

The next year, he got inside the Pentagon.

Over 18 months, de Caro made numerous presentations to military officials, providing exhaustive details on how his plan would work and winning praise, memos show.

For instance, Charles Wilhelm, a Marine Corps brigadier general, wrote de Caro on May 8, 1991, to tell him that he and others ''were impressed with the system's design and technology involved.''

Wilhelm suggested a further, detailed briefing and added: ''If you have no objection, I would suggest that members of the Joint Staff be included.''

In all, de Caro had at least 50 briefings with Pentagon officials, 27 of which included Navy officials, before his plan was rejected, memos and correspondence show.

De Caro's downfall came shortly after Dornan, in the fall of 1992, tried to get his plan into the defense budget bill.

In January 1993, the Navy issued a 9-page paper that stated the Navy could develop a similar system itself and criticized de Caro's product as unsuitable for battlefield situations.

But it also acknowledged the uniqueness of de Caro's project.

''Aerobureau's strong points rest in the concept itself...The idea of disseminating visual/graphic televised information has merit and should be incorporated in the design of the Navy's (communications) systems,'' that report said.