Justice Department officials have decided to withhold commendation awards from two attorneys who complained about a superior's handling of the pending McDonnell Douglas Corp. overseas bribery case. The attorneys, in turn, have notified their bosses that they consider the action a reprisal prohibited by the law that protects government whistleblowers.

The latest development in the department's controveraial handling of the McDonnell Douglas case came to light yesterday when officials had to order new programs for today's scheduled awards ceremony after the names of Michael A. Lubin and George J. Mendelson were scratched from the list of recipients. They wrote Associate Attorney General Rudolph W. Giuliani two weeks ago, questioning the propriety of a mid-May meeting he held without their knowledge with McDonnell Douglas general counsel John Sant. Giuliani denied impropriety.

D. Lowell Jensen, head of the criminal division, wrote the two attorneys that their awards were being withheld pending resolution of the issues raised in their letter, Lubin said last night. The pair, who were planning to leave the department before the dispute developed, fired back that withholding the awards would violate the provisions of the whistleblowers law.

A department spokesman responded that the awards were not being held up in retaliation, but because internal investigators were reviewing the incident, including whether the two attorney's conduct was worthy" of reward.

Attorney General William French Smith is to present the annual awards to about 200 of the department's 50,000 employes, including the undercover agent and the prosecutor who were the key performers in the FBI's Abscam investigation that led to the conviction of sic House members and a senator. Giuliani is scheduled to participate in the program.

Lubin said last night that when he heard that the "special commendation" awards were being held "in abeyance," he and Mendelson wrote Jensen that they were distressed that their "responsible and appropriate criticism" had been greeted by "personal attack and institutional reprisal." The letter added that the two attorneys thought that the suspension of their awards amounted to a "prohibited personnel action."

Giuliani said last night that he had no part in the decision to withhold the awards.

Justice Department spokesman Tom DeCair said that Jensen decided to withhold the awards while the department's office of professional responsibility reviews the incident, including Lubin and Mendelson's "conduct and motivation in papering the department with a letter containing false statements."

DeCair said he didn't think the whistleblower protections applied in this case. "And how much of a whiltleblower can they be to take a shot like this on their way out the door to take another job?" he asked, adding that "this non-issue has embarrassed the department and its top officials and perhaps undermined public confidence in the department."

In their June 18 letter to Giuliani, the two attorneys said his meeting with Sant undermined their morale, could hurt the government's position in the case and eroded public confidence in the department. The meeting, which was arranged by Sen. John C. Danforth (R-Mo.), was also a surprise to other defense attorneys. Danforth's brother is a director of McDonnell Douglas, which is headquartered in St. Louis.

McDonnell Douglas and four of its top executives were charged in Novermber, 1979, with paying bribes to Pakistani officials to ensure the sale of DC10 jetliners. Giuliani said he did not know about the pending criminal case when he agreed to meet with Sant. He said he did nothing improper, noting that an aide was present, and he added that the criminal division was soon informed of the meeting. Guiliani has said he'll decide in a few weeks whether to settle the case before trial.