FBI agents indirectly sounded out Chicago insurance executive Allen M. Dorfman about cooperating with government investigators before he was slain, and the government was encouraged that he might, according to informed sources.

The bureau "put out 'feelers,' " one source said. "That doesn't mean they went to Dorfman or his attorney. There are a thousand ways to do it, such as going to somebody who had Dorfman's ear. The word that came back was encouraging to them."

Asked about the reported "feelers" during a break in a Senate hearing yesterday, FBI Director William H. Webster declined to comment.

"Other people than nice people read your paper," he told a reporter. Referring to public knowledge of the status of the FBI's investigation into the murder, Webster added, "Right now we're in a nice area of uncertainty. I'd like to keep it that way."

Webster was briefed on the Dorfman case during a visit to Chicago Wednesday. He appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday to help launch a series of hearings on organized crime.

Dorfman, a millionaire insurance man long suspected of being a middleman between Teamsters union figures and the Mafia, was shot eight times in the head and neck in the parking lot of a suburban Chicago hotel Jan. 20. At the time he was facing a stiff prison term as a result of being convicted of conspiring to bribe a U.S. senator in return for favors to the Teamsters.

Questioned by Judiciary Committee Chairman Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) about the killing, Webster said chances of solving it were better than might be expected. "Gangland executions are our most difficult crimes," he said. "They use professionals. They pick their time and place . . . . But this one offers us a more substantial chance than any I ever saw."

Webster also endorsed the view of investigators that Dorfman, who has been described by the FBI as "controlled" by the Chicago crime syndicate, was killed in a preemptive move to keep him from talking.

"Dorfman had a good deal of information," Webster said. "He was facing a substantial prison term at the end of life of luxury." Webster said the assumption that Dorfman was killed to keep him quiet was a reasonable one.

Dorfman was killed by two assailants as he was walking toward a hotel restaurant with an old friend, Irwin Weiner. Witnesses said the assailants escaped in a car driven by a third man.

Webster declined to say whether any of the suspects have been identified by name. "I don't want to aggravate the problems of the [FBI] people out there [in Chicago]," he said. "I just don't want to say."

Sources said it was unclear whether the individuals who ordered Dorfman's murder suspected that the FBI had put out "feelers" in Dorfman's direction or whether they just felt it too risky to assume he wouldn't start talking to the government.

"In Chicago," one organized crime expert said, "the mob assumes that a guy under pressure is likely to turn. They ask themselves what he knows. If the answer is 'plenty,' they hit him."