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Justice Dept.: Census confidentiality laws trump the Patriot Act

By Ed O'Keefe

Provisions of the Patriot Act pertaining to information-gathering and -sharing do not override federal confidentiality laws when it comes to the U.S. Census, the Justice Department said this week.

The clarification by government lawyers came at the request of minority lawmakers, who were seeking to allay the fears of constituents about the first national headcount since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

In a letter sent Wednesday to the leaders of the congressional Asian Pacific, Black and Hispanic caucuses, Assistant Attorney General Ronald H. Weich said, "The long history of congressional enactments protecting [Census] information from such disclosure, as well as the established precedents of the courts and this department, supports the view that if Congress intended to override these protections, it would say so clearly and explicitly."

In this case, federal Census laws trump the Patriot Act, and the agency will keep information obtained during the headcount confidential and away from other departments, Weich said.

Civil rights leaders said the clarification will help them convince minorities that it is safe to participate in the Census.

“As we have been going around doing our outreach to local community leaders -- whether religious leaders or community activists -- many people have been asking whether the Census is confidential," said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. "The Patriot Act has been passed since the last Census, so what we wanted to do was eliminate any doubt that the Patriot Act has an impact, and it does not.”

But Vargas said minorities are not the only Americans concerned with sharing personal information on Census forms, noting that people may have tax violations or be concerned about sharing information about a recently foreclosed home.

This year's Census questionnaires will have only 10 questions, asking for a person's name, age, gender, race or ethnicity, the number of people in each household and their relationships with each other and whether the occupants rent or own their home. The forms will also ask for a phone number, in case the agency needs to clarify an answer.

The Census Bureau, which is part of the Commerce Department, has mounted a multimillion-dollar advertising and outreach campaign to encourage increased participation among minority groups.

The agency has partnered with thousands of churches and civic organizations across the country to promote participation, convinced Spanish-language broadcasters to write Census-related storylines into popular "telenovelas," and recently paid $3,000 to print Census promotions on Chinese fortune cookies.

In an effort to make the process easier for immigrants, questionnaires will also be available in English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and Russian, and the agency printed guides on how to complete forms in 59 languages.

Obama administration officials used the Justice Department decision as another opportunity to encourage participation in the Census, which begins later this month when questionnaires are mailed to American residences.

"All United States residents should be fully confident that the individual information they provide on census forms is protected from disclosure by law," said Commerce Department spokesman Nick Kimball.

Leave your thoughts in the comments section below

By Ed O'Keefe  | March 4, 2010; 1:39 PM ET
Categories:  Agencies and Departments, Census  
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Seems to me that irregardless of the Patriot Act, the DOJ, the Washington lawyers and all the rest of the behind the scenes stuff that goes on in DC, we still have the track record of the Federal Government's inability to manage ANYTHING they put their hands on and moreso will not be held accountable for the screwups that ensue by their lack of security for this information. The US Constitution still mandates we have to only tell these people how many people live at this address. That is the only thig they need to know to redraw their district lines. The rest of the info they ask for is intrusive, personal and not their business.

Posted by: prgc33 | March 4, 2010 5:35 PM | Report abuse

With the Census Bureau now reporting to master political operative Rahm Emanuel, all bets are off.

There was NO legitimate reason to take control of the Bureau away from the Department of Commerce. That was purely a political move.

The Democrats will now be able to gerrymander federal and state Congressional districts to their advantage.

The'll also have a better view into demographic data, which will help their campaign efforts.

This is the most corrupt and unethical Administration in the history of the USA.

Posted by: TruData | March 4, 2010 7:24 PM | Report abuse

The Constitution 'trumps' all provisions of the "Patriot Act". And the complete idiots in the House of Representatives and the Senate who voted in favor of its extension should all be banned from ever holding any government office whatsoever, federal, state or even local.

Posted by: terrible1 | March 5, 2010 9:03 AM | Report abuse

Letters and laws, it seems, are there to make citizens feel ok. But the reality is that the government can do just about whatever it wants to do. Recent example is law that prohibits new laws being created without the funding established. Only one senator (Bunting) fought against a law to extend unemployment benefits at the cost of $10 Billion because there was no money established to pay for the bill. The same can certainly be said about the letter mentioned above. Look at excerpts from the Ron Paul Blog about the 1940 census data:

"I saw a huge new billboard in San Francisco the other day—part of the $350 million ad campaign supporting this year’s $14 billion Census—picturing an American Indian in full regalia against a black background, apparently in the process of worshiping the sky, with the stylized text “Tell your story.”

If he’s wise, he might want to think twice about thereby providing information that can be used against him.

As examples, 1940 Census data was released and used to locate and intern Americans of Japanese, Italian and German descent, as outlined in these stories from Scientific American, “Confirmed: The U.S. Census Bureau Gave Up Names of Japanese-Americans in WW II: Government documents show that the agency handed over names and addresses to the Secret Service,” and USA Today, “Papers show Census role in WWII camps.”

The Census Bureau played a role in the confinement of more than 100,000 Americans of Japanese descent who were rounded up and held in internment camps, many until the war ended in 1945. In 1942, the Census turned over general statistics about where Japanese-Americans lived to the War Department. It was acting legally under the Second War Powers Act, which allowed the sharing of information for national security.

The newly released documents [further] show that in 1943, the Census complied with a request by the Treasury Department to turn over names of individuals of Japanese ancestry in the Washington, D.C., area because of an unspecified threat against President Franklin Roosevelt. The list contained names, addresses and data on the age, sex, citizenship status and occupation of Japanese-Americans in the area. [emphasis added]

And more recently, in 2002,

the Census turned over information it had collected about Arab-Americans … to Homeland Security.

While the Census Bureau assures us that “your confidentiality is protected. Title 13 requires the Census Bureau to keep all information about you and all other respondents strictly confidential,” the exceptions above negate such assurances. And, of course, their release of the “strictly confidential” data was perfectly legal: during World War II, under the terms of the Second War Powers Act, and more recently under the terms of the still-in-effect USA PATRIOT Act."

Does my beloved country have some many corrupted officials that we can not trust anything the government says?

Posted by: mcmar | March 7, 2010 12:27 PM | Report abuse

There is no guarantee that your information will not be shared. Even if the Census Bureau has no intention of sharing it, who's to say they won't "lose" computers containing that information?

Heck, if the Homeland Security Department loses an average of 3 computers a day, why should we feel safe with any other government department safeguarding our information?

Posted by: oldrepublic | March 9, 2010 1:52 AM | Report abuse

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