Attorney General Edwin Meese III said in an interview published this week that "you don't have many criminal suspects who are innocent of a crime" and that suspects should not have the right to have a lawyer present when police question them.

The comments by Meese, a former prosecutor, drew immediate and caustic reaction from legal experts and civil libertarians.

In an interview with U.S. News & World Report, Meese renewed his attack on the Supreme Court's 1966 Miranda decision, which held that suspects must be advised of their rights, including the right to remain silent and to have a lawyer present during police questioning. This exchange followed:

"Q. You criticize the Miranda ruling, which gives suspects the right to have a lawyer present before police questioning. Shouldn't people, who may be innocent, have such protection?

A. Suspects who are innocent of a crime should. But the thing is, you don't have many suspects who are innocent of a crime. That's contradictory. If a person is innocent of a crime, then he is not a suspect."

University of Michigan law professor Yale Kamisar called the comments "really incredible. If a first-year law student had said this, you'd really give them a tongue-lashing.

"He's not that stupid," Kamisar said. "Obviously he knows what he's saying is simply inconsistent with the most basic notions of criminal process . . . . He sounds like a comic-strip character in 'Dick Tracy.' "

"I don't think [Meese] meant to say everyone listed by police as a suspect at every stage of an investigation is likely to turn out to be guilty," said Jonathan Rose, who headed the Justice Department's Office of Legal Policy in President Reagan's first term. "Obviously that's not true."

Arthur Spitzer, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union's local office, called Meese's remarks "shameful," saying: "It's very distressing that the attorney general is so misinformed about criminal law."

Terry H. Eastland, Meese's spokesman, said the attorney general made the remarks about criminal suspects, but "that is not what he intended to say. Meese believes that one is innocent until proven guilty in our system. What he was trying to say is simply that he is very concerned about the issue of truth in our system. Miranda has had an impact in terms of enabling people who would have been found guilty in a criminal trial . . . to go free."

Meese also told U.S. News that "the Miranda decision was wrong. We managed very well in this country for 175 years without it. Its practical effect is to prevent the police from talking to the person who knows the most about the crime -- namely, the perpetrator.

"As it stands now under Miranda, if the police obtain a statement from that person in the course of the initial interrogation, the statement may be thrown out at the trial. Therefore, Miranda only helps guilty defendants. Most innocent people are glad to talk to the police. They want to establish their innocence so that they're no longer a suspect."

In fact, the Supreme Court held that statements obtained during initial interrogations may be thrown out only if the suspect was not advised of his right to remain silent, his right to the presence of an attorney and the fact that any statement he makes may be used against him.