WASHINGTON (AP) _ CIA Director John Deutch refused today to rule out using U.S. journalists as spies when American lives are at stake or there is an imminent threat of the use of weapons of mass destruction.

``My sympathy on this matter is very, very much with the journalistic community,'' Deutch told the Senate Intelligence Committee. But he added that in the case of ``unique and special threats to national security,'' it might be necessary to ``consider the use of a journalist in an intelligence operation.''

Disclosure that the CIA retains the option to waive a regulation barring the use of U.S. journalists prompted protests from the media and demands that the practice be banned. The CIA regulation also bars the spy agency from having its agents pose as members of U.S. news organizations.

Deutch did not say whether the CIA had used journalists since 1977 when the practice was prohibited except in extraordinary circumstances. But former CIA Director Robert Gates said in an interview that he believes exceptions to the ban were granted on one or two occasions in the past 15 years.

Pressed by Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chairman of the committee, for hypothetical examples of when journalists might be used as spies, Deutch said it might occur when terrorists are holding Americans hostage and a journalist has ``unique access'' or when a reporter had ``access to a nation or a group who had an ability to use weapons of mass destruction against the U.S.''

Deutch also disclosed that the authority to waive the prohibition rested not only with the CIA director but also with his deputy. Asked by Specter if he would consider limiting that authority only to the director, Deutch said he would prefer it remain with both.

In addition to journalists, CIA regulations also bar the use of Peace Corps workers and clergy except under circumstances in which a waiver is granted.

Deutch said he would give the committee written criteria for exceptions.

Gates said that ``in extraordinary circumstances'' when journalists were recruited by the spy agency, ``it obviously was with the cooperation of the journalist and it was, as I recall, where American lives were at risk.'' ``It wasn't just for information gathering. It was where we really thought some folks were in danger.''

The regulations banned ``any paid or contractual relationship with any fulltime or part-time news correspondent accredited by any U.S. news service, newspaper, periodical, radio or television network or station.''

In addition, the regulations said the agency would end existing relationships with correspondents ``as soon as feasible.''

But little noticed in the two-page announcement 19 years ago was the final paragraph: ``No exceptions to the policies and prohibitions stated above may be made except with the express approval of the DCI (Director of Central Intelligence).''

For a director to waive the ban involved ``a cumbersome process,'' Gates said, adding, ``It is not at all undertaken lightly.''

Within the media, the concern was that it should be used at all.

``It puts our people in jeopardy,'' says Tom Johnson, president of CNN.

``The ban on the use of journalistic cover should be absolute,'' said Louis D. Boccardi, president of The Associated Press.

``The CIA should say it's not going to use the cover of journalism for the work that it does,'' Boccardi said. ``They have a function, we have a function, and I think mixing them exposes our people all over the world to a level of danger that's extremely worrisome.''

Johnson protested the policy in a letter to Deutch and also spoke to Anthony Lake, the White House national security adviser, and Mike McCurry, President Clinton's press secretary.

``They listened, they acknowledged the concern and indicated they would be discussing this with the director and his staff,'' Johnson said. ``It really does place a cloud over all of our international correspondents who are operating in countries such as Iraq and North Korea.''

Terry Anderson, a journalist who was held captive by Muslim terrorists in Lebanon for nearly seven years, said that in the Middle East, where he was an AP correspondent when he was kidnapped, radicals ``believe all Americans are spies to begin with and particularly those who go around asking questions are spies. ...

``One of the questions they asked me in my interrogation was who at the AP was my secret contact with the CIA, the assumption being that of course there was one,'' Anderson said.

Roy Godson, a professor at Georgetown University and director of the Consortium for the Study of Intelligence, defended the CIA's ability to use journalists as cover.

``You can't exclude all professional who wouldn't want to be tainted,'' said Godson. ``You can't get near the targets if you claim to be a businessman or you claim to be working for the U.S. government.''

But Godson's argument received little if any support within the media.

William B. Ketter, editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, Mass., and president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, said the group ``has protested this in the past; we are protesting it presently.'' He said he did not think ASNE was aware that CIA directors could waive the 1977 regulations.

Robert G. McGruder, managing editor of the Detroit Free Press and president of The Associated Press Managing Editors, said the notion of the CIA using journalists was ``extremely disturbing. It seems to me that kind of activity dangerously erodes the confidence people can have in journalists.

``People have to know that when they talk to journalists they are talking to journalists and not government operatives,'' McGruder said.