The Justice Department has decided to stop asking prospective federal prosecutors if they are homosexual, officials said yesterday.

Instead, departmental spokesman Patrick Korten said, all applicants for such jobs will be asked "if there is anything in your personal lifestyle that would give us a problem with blackmail." Korten said there will be "no mention of sexual preference" and that the question could pertain to any potentially embarrassing revelations.

The Washington Post reported Tuesday that, under a policy adopted last year, all prospective assistant U.S. attorneys and Justice Department lawyers are being asked if they are homosexual. If applicants say they are homosexual, they are asked whether their friends and families know about it.

Korten said the inquiry -- part of a new questionnaire that examines such personal subjects as possible drug and alcohol use -- was aimed at determining whether people in sensitive federal jobs would be vulnerable to blackmail. He said an applicant would not be denied employment simply because he is homosexual, but might not be hired if he acknowledged that he was keeping the fact secret.

The disclosure sparked protests from gay rights and civil liberties groups, who said the policy appeared discriminatory.

Korten said the question was "less than artfully worded" and had been under review for months. He said Attorney General Edwin Meese III helped revise the language.

Korten said the questionnaire was designed to screen applicants before a background check. He said he was aware of no blackmail attempt involving a homosexual prosecutor in recent years.