The Justice Department's investigative report on the government's handling of the Billy Carter foreign agent case was formally released yesterday amid suggestions that its authors intended their critical comments about the president to be leaked just before the election.

Sen. Birch Bayh (D-Ind.), chairman of the Senate subcommittee that also investigated Billy Carter's dealings with Libya, said he was making the report public because it contains new new facts and its most controversial sections already had been leaked to the press.

Bayh said he was "very disturbed and disappointed" by the way Michael E. Shaheen Jr., the chief Justice Department investigator, handled the secret report. He said he was puzzled about why Shaheen would tell the subcommittee about his unsuccessful efforts to interview the president "if he truly did not want to make it public. His conclusions and dealings with the White House are sensitive only as they impact on current politics."

Shaheen could not be reached for comment yesterday, but sources have said that he hurried his report because he felt the White House was playing politics, delaying access to the president and his diaries to stall completion of the department's inquiry until after the election.

Soon after Shaheen forwarded the report to the Senate on Wednesday, characterizations of his criticism of the White House and Attorney General Benjamin R. Civiletti began to surface. The report immediately became the subject of partisan debate, with the White House accusing Republican senators of the leaks and Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan saying yesterday that the president was "dragging his feet" by not meeting with Justice Department investigators.

The report confirms that the leaked accounts of it were accurate. For instance, the report does say that the investigators had not been granted the access they sought to the president's personal notes and diary, despite his public statements of total cooperation. It also says, as has been reported, that unless the requested notes are made available soon and an interview scheduled, "we may be required to use compulsory process to obtain the president's testimony."

The Justice Department and Senate investigations began after questions were raised about the government's handling of Billy Carter's case. The president's brother registered as a foreign agent for Libya in July after being confronted with department evidence that he had accepted $220,000 from the Libyans.

Shaheen sent his interim report to the Senate Wednesday, a department spokesman said, because he had promised something by the end of October.

The report describes lengthy negotiations with the office of White House counsel Lloyd Cutler that resulted in access to "extracts" from the president's diary of meetings and phone calls with 37 individuals cited by Justice Department investigators. But it adds that the investigators were still waiting for an answer on a list of 44 dates "for which we asked to review the president's notes ourselves."

In a formal response yesterday, a White House statement said that Shaheen's office never complained about a lack of cooperation by the White House, and that no effort had been made to delay the department's investigation past the election.

The statement described how White lawyers and Shaheen's investigators agreed on a process of extracts from presidential documents so that irrelevant foreign policy or national security information wouldn't have to be disclosed. A similar offer to provide specific data from the president's private notes also was agreed to by Shaheen, two days before his report was sent to the Senate, the statement said.

The report's harshest conclusions are those about Civiletti, who created a furor in July when he admitted he had discussed the Billy Carter case with the president, after denying it earlier. "We are forced to conclude that the attorney general's answer [denying such a conversation] was not the truth and that he knew he was dissembling as he was answering," it says.

The report also concluded that Billy Carter lied repeatedly to Justice Department investigators about the money he received from Libya. "We will continue to review Billy Carter's statements and take additional investigative steps to determine whether the misstatements contained therein rise to the level of prosecutable perjury."

Department officials said at the time Carter registered as a foreign agent that perjury charges weren't likely despite his lies, because the statements weren't made before a grand jury.