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|3/30: Papers show Census role in WWII camps
Released 31 March 2007  By Haya El Nasser - USA TODAY
Papers show Census role in WWII camps
By Haya El Nasser, USA TODAY
March 30, 2007
The Census Bureau turned over confidential information including names and
addresses to help the Justice Department, Secret Service and other agencies
identify Japanese-Americans during World War II, according to government
documents released today.
Documents found by two historians in Commerce Department archives and the
Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library confirm for the first time that the
bureau shared details about individual Japanese-Americans after Japan's Dec. 7,
1941, attack on Pearl Harbor.
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 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
"The issue is how ethical is it to use the Census to target people," says
William Seltzer, a statistician at Fordham University in New York who co-wrote
the report with Margo Anderson, professor of history and urban studies at the
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Sharing the information was not illegal, he
says, but "it was ethically questionable."
Disclosure was legal
The Census Bureau's role in helping the government ferret out
Japanese-Americans during the war has been documented in previous research by
Seltzer and Anderson and others. But today's report marks the first time that
documents have been uncovered indicating that the agency released actual names.
The Census Bureau has consistently denied releasing such names probably
because, over time, most officials there didn't know it had happened, Seltzer
The agency has "not had the opportunity to review" today's report, says
Christa Jones, chief of Census' policy office. "The disclosure of the names was
legal at that time," Jones says. "One of the most important things for us is to
remind everyone that the law is very different today."
Census activities during World War II "obviously go against their own mandate
for confidentiality," says Terry Ao, director of census and voting programs at
the Asian American Justice Center, a civil rights group.
"Actions such as this have the potential of having a very serious detrimental
impact on the ability of the Census Bureau to collect data that we need. The
most important thing about this would be that the (agency) today understands it
has no authority to conduct such activity. They do take their legal obligations
for confidentiality very seriously. "
The Census every 10 years asks Americans to fill out detailed questionnaires
that probe everything from their income and household relationships to
occupation, race and ethnicity. The information is used to allocate federal
funds and congressional seats, draw political districts, track changes in family
size and plan for roads and schools.
Questions about questions
The report by Seltzer and Anderson comes as a revelation to Kenneth Prewitt, a
public affairs professor at Columbia University in New York City who was Census
director during the 2000 Census.
Seven years ago, Prewitt dealt with controversy over Census questionnaires.
Then-Senate majority leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., urged people to skip any Census
questions they felt violated their privacy. The objections were exacerbated by
previous research by Seltzer and Anderson on the Census' role in the internment
Prewitt apologized for what the bureau had done, something no Census official
had done previously. He calls the new report "a remarkable piece of historical
detective work" but is saddened by the findings because the Census prides itself
on keeping all information confidential.
"It is better to know than to not know," he says. "Knowing the facts will
redouble the effort to assure it is not repeated."
After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Congress approved the USA Patriot Act to
give the government broad investigative powers. Since then, civil liberties
groups have criticized government efforts to monitor phone calls, prepare no-fly
lists and keep files on anti-war activists.
"It's a bombshell," Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU's Washington
Legislative Office, says of today's disclosures. "This is such a black mark on
American history that we need to make sure we never allow ourselves to engage in
anything close to that kind of violation of people's constitutional rights."
An ethical issue was raised in 2004 when the Census turned over information it
had collected about Arab-Americans by ZIP code but not by name. The information
was already public but civil rights groups protested the agency's handing over
of data to Homeland Security. The Census now puts all requests for sensitive
data through a rigorous approval process and makes all special releases of data
available to the public.
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