The CIA campaigned on Capitol Hill yesterday for what it described as a modest "compromise" that would put all of its operational files beyond the reach of the Freedom of Information Act.

What constitutes an "operational" file would be determined by the director of the CIA and, according to CIA officials at least, such designations would not be subject to court review.

The CIA's deputy director, John N. McMahon, and a contingent of high-ranking colleagues from Langley testified enthusiastically in favor of the proposal at a hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee yesterday afternoon.

"We have struck an arrangement that borders on acceptability in CIA," McMahon said of the bill, which has been introduced by Intelligence Committee Chairman Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.).

He said he would still prefer a "total exemption" for all the agency's files, but he said the agency was willing to settle for something that he said would comport "with the spirit" of the freedom of information statute.

The CIA's deputy general counsel, Ernest Mayerfeld, said the proposal also should undercut more than half of the 77 FOIA lawsuits pending against the agency for denying records under the current law. Mayerfeld predicted that 22 of the lawsuits would be dismissed outright and most of the documents sought in 24 other cases would be taken out of reach.

The bill, which would be retroactive, would enable the CIA to refuse even to search the "operational files" in the agency's directorate of operations, the directorate of science and technology and office of security.