Ranking officials of the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies assailed the Freedom of Information Act yesterday as "incompatible" with their work and asked Congress for a complete exemption from the law.

CIA deputy director Bobby Ray Inman, who led the parade before the Senate intelligence committee, said the agencies had asked for less sweeping relief in the past only because they had not been able to drum up sufficient support for what they really wanted.

"It isn't a case of trying to hide waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement," Inman insisted, "but of trying to protect sources and methods."

Other witnesses at the hearing, from the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Newspaper Publishers Association, the American Historical Association and the Society of Professional Journalists, expressed their strong opposition ot the broad-gauged request.

But committee Chairman Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) was clearly sympathetic. "We have made ourselves the most public secret intelligence service in the world," Goldwater declared. "That has to be stopped."

Inman suggested that the Senate and House intellignece committees could serve as adequate surrogates for the public in making sure the intelligence community behaves properly, but Goldwater expressed his distaste even for that. "I don't ever like to have an intelligence oversight committee," he said. "I don't think it's any of our business."

The hearing dealt primarily with a bill offered by Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.) that would permit the director of central intelligence to designate most intelligence agency files as beyond the reach of FOIA. Citizens and resident aliens could still seek records "concerning themselves" under the Privacy Act.

A spokesman for the ANPA warned that the step would be "especially disturbing" in light of recent events at CIA, including the downgrading of the public information office, the cessation of background briefings for journalists, and the recent allegations of improper business dealing by top CIA officials.