WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court today refused to force the CIA to release its documents on the 1985 sinking by French government agents of the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior.

The justices, without comment, let stand rulings that the spy agency may withhold the documents from a Houston lawyer who is seeking them under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Greenpeace, an international environmental group, had been preparing to monitor and protest a scheduled French nuclear weapons test when its vessel exploded and sank in the Auckland, New Zealand, harbor July 10, 1985.

The French government two months later admitted that two of its intelligence agents, acting on orders from senior officials, had attached explosive devices to the ship's hull.

Houston lawyer John R. Knight asked the Central Intelligence Agency in October 1985 for all documents in its possession dealing with the Rainbow Warrior sinking. His request was based on the FOIA, enacted in 1966 to curtail government secrecy.

The CIA refused to disclose any documents, and Knight then filed an FOIA lawsuit.

In resisting disclosure, CIA officials said the documents Knight sought are ''matters that are ... specifically exempt from disclosure by statute'' enpowering the CIA director to protect ''intelligence sources and methods from unauthorized disclosure.''

U.S. District Judge Gabrielle K. McDonald ruled for the CIA, and her ruling was upheld by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last May.

The appeals court relied heavily on a 1985 Supreme Court decision that gave the CIA unlimited power to conceal from the public not only the identities of secret agents but also all sources of intelligence information - classified and unclassified.

''Given the Supreme Court's broad holding in (1985), we conclude that the CIA must prevail here,'' the appeals court said. ''The documents are exempt from FOIA disclosure. This is so because the director of Central Intelligence determined, with full authority to do so, that the release of the documents could compromise intelligence sources and methods.''

The 5th Circuit court added: ''In the absence of bad faith or some other compelling showing that he has abused his broad discretion, his determination may not be second-guessed by the courts.''

The case is Knight vs. U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, 89-878.