Justice Department investigations generally remain in "active" status until charges are brought or a case is officially closed. But sources say a political hot potato handed over by CIA Director William J. Casey appears to have been buried deep in an "inactive" file drawer at Justice, where the case remains open but in bureaucratic limbo.

The matter, referred by Casey for possible prosecution two months ago, involves an NBC News story on the trial of convicted spy Ronald W. Pelton. The report by correspondent James Polk, aired on the "Today" show, reprised a report by Polk last November that Pelton apparently gave away one of the National Security Agency's most sensitive secrets, "believed to be a top-secret eavesdropping program by American submarines inside Soviet harbors."

Casey said the report may have violated a law against publishing classified information about U.S. intelligence activities. Casey's referral came two weeks after he suggested that The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Washington Times, Time and Newsweek might be prosecuted under the espionage law for publishing sensitive information.

But there is little enthusiasm at the Justice Department for seeking charges against NBC. One official said the strategy is to "let it lie for awhile . . . We're going to stall as long as possible." The department does not want to formally drop the case now, sources said, to avoid angering Casey and generating more publicity on the dispute. The department's official response: No comment. Honduras, Part II. . .

Speculation that ousted U.S. Ambassador to Honduras John A. Ferch would be replaced by William G. Walker has been supplanted by a new rumor in Foggy Bottom: that the post will go to Everett E. Briggs, now ambassador to Panama. Briggs, whose Central America experience includes service as a deputy assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs when Thomas O. Enders was assistant secretary, is the son of the late Ellis O. Briggs, a longtime foreign service officer who served as ambassador to eight countries.

Sources said that although the State Department has recommended Briggs' appointment, the White House hasn't made a decision about filling the crucial slot. According to some of State's inveterate talkers, one reason Walker was passed over is that his supporters annoyed "the 7th floor" -- where Secretary George P. Shultz's offices are -- by clamoring too much and too widely about his candidacy.

Appropriate Dialogue. . .

Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger stands behind top Navy officials who complained to the superiors of defense contractor executive Lawrence J. Korb that Korb did not support President Reagan's arms program enthusiastically enough, a spokesman said yesterday.

"I think he feels it is appropriate for us Pentagon officials to have a dialogue with contractors about things that we like and don't like," said Defense Department spokesman Robert B. Sims in the first comment from Weinberger's office on l'affaire Korb.

Sims, when first questioned last week about Weinberger's views on the matter, said he would consult with Weinberger and get back to reporters. When asked again yesterday at his regular briefing, Sims quipped, "You have such a long memory. The intervention of who in what affair?"

In this case, DOD's dialogue -- with Raytheon Co., about Korb's criticism of the president's defense budget -- prompted Raytheon to dismiss Korb as a Washington vice president. Korb had been assistant defense secretary for manpower before he was hired by Raytheon in 1985.

Sims, like Navy Secretary John F. Lehman Jr. before him, was at pains to say that although two senior Navy officials complained to Raytheon, they made no request that Korb be removed from his job; they only expressed their views. "I don't think Weinberger has objections to officials of the department expressing their views," Sims said. Free for All . . .

Candidates running against Senate incumbents always have a tough row to hoe, and are ever on the alert for new ways to attract the publicity that comes to their opponents in the normal course of business. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican challenging Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.), has come up with what Capitol Hill observers say is a novel forum indeed: He will testify today before the Senate water and power subcommittee about legislation cosponsored by Bumpers.

At issue is the proposed Ratepayers' Protection Act, intended to prevent utility customers from having to pay the cost of finishing Grand Gulf II, a nuclear power plant known locally in Arkansas as "Grand Goof." It's not that Hutchinson opposes the legislation; he thinks he has an amendment that would improve the bill.

Hutchinson, a former U.S. attorney, is thought to be the underdog in November.

Why is the subcommittee enlisting Hutchinson as a witness? He told the Arkansas Democrat newspaper that he met with the subcommittee staff director "and received an invitation to testify." But a release from his campaign office notes that three weeks earlier, "Hutchinson appealed to subcommittee Chairman Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) to expedite the hearings." What's on Base. . .

Among the least of the criticisms leveled at the Attorney General's Commission on Pornography was the charge that its report tarred all titillating material, hard-core or "soft," with the same brush. But the Pentagon, at least, still insists on drawing distinctions.

A Pentagon spokesman said yesterday that despite the commission's reservations about such publications as Penthouse and Playboy, the magazines will continue to be sold on military bases. "We don't permit pornography, but we do not prohibit the sale at military PX and commissary stores of adult publications," the spokesman said.

Pentagon officials point out, however, that the front covers of "adult magazines" are masked with brown paper and displayed out of reach of children.