I read with interest Rep. Don Edwards' (D-Calif.) Jan. 30 letter concerning FBI contacts of Arab Americans, and I appreciate his comments strongly supportive of the FBI's counterterrorism efforts. I also agree with many of the concerns he raised.

It is for these very reasons that the FBI gave substantial consideration to the sensitivities that these contacts entailed. I would like to assure the American public that these contacts were born from concern by the FBI for the protection of this country, regardless of speculation or perception to the contrary.

It is important that all citizens and ethnic groups understand the FBI's critical role in that regard, especially at times of heightened potential for such occurrences. Since August 1990, the FBI has opened numerous investigations of apparent incidents of backlash against Arab Americans. This is an unfortunate consequence of the conflict, and the FBI will pursue these investigations with great vigor.

In addition, while there have been a wide variety of characterizations of the contacts in the media, I would like the American public to know that the persons who were contacted are not regarded as targets or suspects. The contacts were voluntary, and the individuals were certainly not subjected to any form of interrogation, surveillance or investigation. Quite the opposite, we have turned to these individuals for assistance as we carry out our mandate of protecting this country from acts of terrorism. Although the initial contacts have been completed, it remains critical during the current situation that the FBI continue to have dialogue with the Arab-American community.

As always, the FBI relies heavily on the cooperation and support of the American people to fulfill its mission. The FBI needs assistance from citizens who understand or have contact with cultures different from our own. That also is why the FBI has had continuing dialogue with leaders of Arab-American and other ethnic organizations. All of this has been helpful to us.

The FBI is attentive to the rights of citizens, and we addressed this issue with our oversight committees while also discussing the FBI counterterrorism program. WILLIAM S. SESSIONS Director, Federal Bureau of Investigations Washington

Taking issue with the views of Charles Lichenstein and Paul Joyal {op-ed, Jan. 21} on the subject of the FBI's interviewing Arab-American leaders in its efforts to cope with the terrorist threats of Saddam Hussein, Rep. Don Edwards insists that ''the criminal standard adopted by Republican U.S. Attorney General Edward Levi in 1976 should be the guidepost for the FBI today.''

Only partly true. The criminal standard should be the FBI's guidepost only when it is investigating criminal matters. It should not control the FBI's security intelligence collection (concerning espionage, terrorism etc.), which is a different thing.

The Supreme Court stated in Keith (1972): ''We recognize that domestic security surveillance may involve different policy and practical considerations from the surveillance of 'ordinary crime.' The gathering of security intelligence is often long range and involves the interrelation of various sources and types of information. The exact targets of such surveillance may be more difficult to identify than in surveillance operations against many types of crimes. ... Often, too, the emphasis of domestic intelligence gathering is on the prevention of unlawful activity or the enhancement of the government's preparedness for some future crisis or emergency. Thus, the focus of domestic intelligence may be less precise than that directed against the more conventional type of crime.''

In practical application, Rep. Edwards' proclaimed dedication to the criminal standard is quite selective. In 1979 he tried to destroy the confidentiality of the FBI's sensitive informant files. He bitterly opposed enactment of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1981. His highly critical 1984 report on the FBI's undercover operations was branded by the National Law Journal as the most ''one-sided'' report it had ever seen. His Senate counterpart committee found those same FBI operations ''indispensable to the achievement of effective law enforcement.''

Ten years ago Rep. Edwards was ranting about U.S. expenditures for "the mad arms race." Today most Americans -- particularly those fighting Saddam Hussein -- are most thankful that Rep. Edwards was wrong again.

FRANCIS J. MCNAMARA Bethesda The writer was executive secretary of the Subversive Activities Control Board and director of the House Committee on Un-American Activities.