In the words of Thomas Jefferson, "eternal vigilance" is the price of freedom. Yet, Charles Lichenstein and Paul Joyal seem eager to take exception when Arab Americans are vigilant in guarding their constitutional and civil liberties {op-ed, Jan. 21}. The authors seem more concerned with providing the FBI "elbow room" than they are about the rights of these Americans. Have they forgotten how much elbow room J. Edgar Hoover had?

In "interviewing" Arab-American leaders in an attempt to gather information about possible terrorist activity in the United States, the FBI is asking questions about their political beliefs {news story, Jan. 14}. Deputy Attorney General William P. Barr tells us that "these interviews are not intended to intimidate." However, that is what they do. They intimidate people into being politically silent and passive.

Although I strongly support active anti-terrorist efforts, these activities should be conducted in a way that does not violate constitutional liberties. In carrying out the interviews, the FBI and Justice Department have acted with prejudice. They are in essence saying they believe Arab Americans have information of possible terrorist acts but are unwilling to come forward and notify the authorities. Somehow, Arab-American loyalty to America is less than what it should be.

Also, the interviews help create an impression that since this group is being officially questioned on a serious matter, there must be something there. Thus, they cast a cloud over the community without a shred of evidence.

Contrary to what the government says, Arab Americans have a lot to worry about. This is not an isolated instance. In 1986 the Immigration and Naturalization Service wrote a detailed plan called "The Alien Terrorists and Undesirables: A Contingency Plan." Under that plan, a new federal prison camp was established in Louisiana. Some government officials thought it "would be a good place to put about 5,000 Arabs." The plan has not been repudiated by the highest levels of our government.

In 1987 the FBI and INS arrested seven Palestinians in Los Angeles. Their crime was membership in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The evidence was primarily pro-Palestinian magazine articles. They were arrested because their political thinking was not in line with official U.S. government policy.

During World War II, Japanese Americans were interned. The government said it was doing this to guard against acts of sabotage and terrorism. It now appears that Arab Americans are singled out for special treatment.

This is a clear and present danger to all Americans, not just Arab Americans. The best way to beat this ugly and unconstitutional threat is to fight this action. Anything short of that invites America to repeat its past violations of the Constitution. Today, it is Arab Americans. Not too long ago it was Japanese Americans. Who will it be tomorrow? ROBERT A. CLARK Arlington

The writer is president of The American Council, a political action committee working to improve U.S.-Arab relations.

The FBI should stop its "interviews" of Arab Americans about potential terrorism in this country. Such interviews are not only intimidating, but they make all Arab Americans unfairly suspect in the eyes of their fellow citizens.

If the FBI has credible information about terrorist activity, by all means it should take every action to thwart it. But to question Arab Americans at random is highly offensive to all Americans. Would it be appropriate for the FBI to question me about the Irish Republican Army just because of my name? Would it be fair to question Italian Americans about the Mafia just because of their ancestry?

The analogy has been made to what was suffered by loyal Japanese Americans during World War II. It is apt. Many of us thought that Americans had learned from that tragic mistake. It is obvious that the Justice Department and FBI have not. KEVIN DELANY Washington

As an Arab American, I was disturbed by the Jan. 14 news story "FBI Starts Interviewing Arab-American Leaders," but not for the reasons put forth by those interviewed.

Arab Americans would have ample reason to be disturbed by FBI inquiries, if indeed the FBI approached them as potential suspects. The article, however, states that the purpose of the FBI calls was to protect Arab Americans from any backlash from the conflict with Iraq and to gather intelligence about potential terrorist threats.

Some Arab Americans have reacted negatively to these inquiries, assuming somehow that the inquiry itself impugns all Arab Americans. But unless the FBI behaved in an unusually clumsy manner, Arab Americans should not take offense at pleas from law enforcement agencies to help prevent terrorism. As Americans, they should be more than willing to help thwart any attempts by pro-Saddam Hussein terrorists against American targets.

It should be obvious that members of the Arab-American community may be more likely to hear of suspicious Arab activity than, say, members of the Swedish-American community. Similarly, it is incumbent on the FBI and other law enforcement agencies to make it clear that Arab-American leaders are being solicited for their help and not as suspects.

Arab Americans often express their pride in being Americans first and foremost. As such, we should be equally proud to help defend American security interests without feeling persecuted in the process. PETER J. TANOUS New York