The FBI on Tuesday defended its national tally of Muslim mosques as only one part of a much broader effort to apply scarce anti-terrorism resources and identify vulnerable sites.
Critics called it a form of ethnic and religious profiling.
The number of mosques was one of dozens of pieces of information that FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III directed the 56 FBI field offices to gather. Agency officials said the survey was intended to establish a better picture of the demographics and possible terrorism targets in each region.
That information, in turn, would be used to direct counter-terrorism resources and set goals for each office as part of a larger overhaul of the FBI.
FBI field offices also were asked in the same directive to list other vulnerable areas in their regions, such as dams, bridges and nuclear plants, officials said. They said the intent was not to single out mosques and Muslims for investigations or surveillance.
"The number of mosques in an area is not a measure of the terrorist threat, nor the basis for investigative goals or revenue allocation," FBI spokesman Mike Kortan said.
Civil liberties and Islamic groups, however, raised several concerns. The move follows other controversial efforts by the FBI to question as many as 50,000 Iraqis living in the United States and a Justice Department program to photograph and fingerprint thousands of men -- mostly Muslims -- living here temporarily.
"This policy makes about as much sense as counting Catholic churches in America in order to initiate an investigation of the Mafia," said Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "It is religious profiling of the worst kind and must be rescinded."
The American Civil Liberties Union said the program raises fundamental constitutional questions because it could lead to investigations of mosques with no evidence of wrongdoing. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft last year relaxed guidelines so the FBI could more easily investigate and eavesdrop in mosques or other religious sites.
"The FBI guidelines encourage agents to infiltrate mosques and other houses of worship," said Dalia Hashad, an attorney working with the ACLU's anti-profiling campaign. "The mosque-counting scheme virtually guarantees this invasion."
FBI officials said it made sense to gain better awareness of the location of mosques because of the threat against the United States from Islamic extremist groups, such as Al Qaeda. They also said the information could help protect the mosques, which have been targets of vandalism and other attacks in an anti-Islamic backlash.