The Carter administration set up a covert CIA program in early 1978 to induce the European press to write favorably about neutron weapons and expose Soviet efforts to block deployment, a new study by Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government says.

A former Carter administration official who was involved in the early stages of the program said it included a plan to pay foreign journalists to write "favorable articles" on the neutron shells, which became controversial in part because they were built to kill more by radiation and less by blast than other nuclear weapons.

Supporters said neutron weapons might thus do less damage, but opponents said this also might make it more likely that nuclear weapons would be used.

The Harvard study alludes to possible payments to journalists, saying that the covert activity contemplated included "asking U.S. sympathizers and agents in the European press corps to give more favorable press coverage to the bomb either for money or for free."

It is not clear whether payments were made, however. The several hundred neutron weapons that have been produced are stored in the United States and none have been deployed in Europe.

A former top CIA official said in an interview that he did not "recall the neutron operation as a major program" but added that "the placement of stories" was part of an ongoing effort by the agency "to counter Soviet propaganda."

The Harvard study, "The Press and the Neutron Bomb" written by consultant David Whitman, says the covert action program "was prompted by covert and semicovert Soviet infiltration of the anti-neutron bomb movement in Europe, particularly in the Netherlands."

The report cites two January 1978 State Department memos by Leslie H. Gelb, then director of politico-military affairs at the State Department and now national security correspondent for The New York Times.

Gelb's Jan. 12, 1978, memo was entitled "Proposal for action in response to Soviet anti-neutron bomb campaign." The second, written with George Vest, then assistant secretary of state for European affairs, was called "Covert action to counter international anti-neutron bomb forum," the study says.

A major anti-neutron weapons rally, called the "International Forum Against the Neutron Bomb," was scheduled for March 1978 in Amsterdam to protest President Jimmy Carter's decision to begin production of the weapons. It was sponsored in part by the Netherlands Communist Party, according to the study, and received "substantial funding from the Soviet Union."

"We thought more favorable press coverage might help show the European public that we weren't trying to upset the current nuclear balance, that the neutron bomb was a legitimate modernization move, every bit as legitimate as what the Soviets had done in the deploying of the SS20," the Harvard study quotes Gelb as saying.

But one official involved in the affair remembers that Gelb was "the only one who questioned" the use of covert tactics, arguing instead that "we should send experts over from Washington to brief newsmen" openly on the weapons.

Gelb would not comment on his role in the operation or on how it turned out. The study says details of the operation "have remained classified."

The Harvard study does record, however, a marked turnaround of European press sentiment in February and March of 1978, with a sampling of West German and British journals carrying more stories critical of the Soviets and favorable to the United States and its notion that neutron weapons were comparable to the SS20.

By March 1978, the study says, "it does appear that the combination of public statements by European officials, along with the covert action program, had a marked effect on Western press coverage."

During the 1950s and 1960s, the CIA used U.S. and foreign journalists as agents to gather information and to write agency-originated stories for legitimate publications. It also planted stories in overseas news media and at times provided funds to keep publications going.

Because of public disclosure of these activities by House and Senate investigating committees in the early 1970s, George Bush, then CIA director, in 1976 barred any CIA use of employes of U.S. news organizations. But Bush's order did not bar use of foreign newsmen or foreign publications.

According to a participant, the CIA operation was on the agenda of a White House meeting of the so-called mini-special coordinating committee (SCC) headed by David Aaron, then deputy national security adviser to Carter and now chief foreign policy adviser to Democratic presidential nominee Walter F. Mondale.

A former Capitol Hill aide who was aware of CIA operations during the Carter administration said yesterday that "several covert press operations" were carried out between 1977 and 1980, "but usually as part of a broader agency program." A former Carter administration official said this included subsidizing publications in the Mideast.

As part of the covert neutron program, CIA operatives were to not only cultivate working journalists but encourage Western European government officials and others to use their influence with newspaper publishers to print favorable editorials on the new generation of weapons, a former official said last week.

Aaron said last week he could not recall a covert press operation on the neutron bomb issue, although "we were concerned about European public opinion against the weapons," he said.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter's national security adviser, in a telephone interview, also said he could not recall the covert program.

In the Harvard study, however, Brzezinski is quoted as saying a covert program was preferable to a public one "to make sure that the notion of equivalence of certain weapons was planted in the public mind; that the people who write on these subjects became more conscious of the extreme destructiveness of the SS20 and of the relatively more limited applicability of the neutron bomb. But we didn't believe we had precluded a public campaign, or that the public outcry would prove decisive."

The first news stories on neutron weapons appeared in The Washington Post in June and July, 1977. The Harvard study contains criticism of the Post stories. Brzezinski is quoted as saying, "I felt then, and I feel now, that the sensational press coverage was largely demagogy."

Brzezinski and other Carter administration officials, the study says, believed that the Post stories unfairly characterized a weapons modernization that would reduce damage on a nuclear battlefield.

Dr. Harold Brown, then defense secretary, is quoted as saying the Post stories "cast neutron weapons in the worst possible light."

The CIA program was approved at the mini-SCC meeting at the White House with only "a few minutes" of discussion, a participant said. Gelb's memo summarized the program for the State Department, the former official said, and it was agreed that the CIA would not report back on implementation "unless they ran into trouble."

By March 1978, the study reports, "it does appear that the combination of public statements by European officials, along with the covert action program, had a marked effect on Western press coverage."

On March 3, Helmut Schmidt, then West German chancellor, said, "Better information about the crucial elements of the story appears to have penetrated to the public, and a somewhat more objective discussion is emerging."

The Amsterdam protest meeting that had been one apparent target of Gelb's covert proposal of Jan. 28 drew about 50,000 demonstrators.

In April 1977, Carter delayed production of neutron weapons.

When President Reagan took office, he ordered neutron Lance missile warheads and 8-inch artillery shells built but had them stored in the United States because NATO nations would not accept them.

Congress has approved legislation that would end neutron-shell production and permit the Pentagon to produce only traditional nuclear battlefield weapons.