The Census Bureau turned over confidential information, including names and addresses, to help the U.S. government identify individual Japanese Americans during World War II, according to government documents released by two scholars Friday.
The documents validate long-held suspicions among Japanese Americans that information about them collected under confidentiality pledges was released to the government.
In 2000, the Census Bureau acknowledged and apologized for its role in sharing aggregate data with the U.S. military to help relocate Japanese Americans from the West Coast to inland camps after Japan’s 1941 Pearl Harbor attack.
But Friday’s disclosure represented the first confirmation that the bureau also shared information about individuals -- in this case, the names and addresses of Japanese Americans in the Washington, D.C., area. A list of 79 names was handed over to aid a Secret Service investigation into possible threats to the president.
The disclosures were legal under wartime legislation. But they were arguably unethical and could affect public trust in the bureau’s confidentiality pledges as it prepares to launch its 2010 census, according to the scholars, William Seltzer of Fordham University and Margo Anderson of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The pair presented their findings at a New York population conference.
“It’s very hard to do a census if people mistrust the census takers,” Seltzer said.
Census Bureau spokeswoman Christa Jones stressed that the wartime actions were legal and that privacy protections are far stronger today. “It’s our commitment to protect the confidentiality in everything we do,” she said.
However, Seltzer and Anderson said questions continued to plague the bureau. In 2004, census officials came under fire after disclosures that they provided specially tabulated population statistics on Arab Americans to the Department of Homeland Security. The disclosures were legal and involved publicly available data, but they caused an outcry.
Community advocates said the new disclosures would increase suspicions about information gathering. “People of color have always been suspicious of ... federal agencies that collect information,” said Lane Hirabayashi, a UCLA Asian American studies professor. “The historical pattern is that the data is used to the disadvantage of people of color without the money and legal resources to defend themselves.”
Hussam Ayloush of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Anaheim said many Muslim and Arab Americans suspected their privacy rights had been violated by federal officials. “It’s open season on all privacy rights under the pretext of national security,” he said.
According to Seltzer and Anderson, the Census Bureau helped lobby Congress to pass the Second War Powers Act in March 1942, authorizing census data to be shared with other government agencies “for use in connection with the conduct of war.” The provision expired in 1947.
In August 1943, the Secret Service requested a list of all Japanese Americans in Washington to aid an investigation into reported threats to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The investigation followed congressional hearings into alleged anti-American activities by Japanese Americans, including a report that one man had said “we ought to have enough guts to kill Roosevelt.”
The man, Juichi Uyemoto, had already been committed to a mental hospital for schizophrenia. But Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. requested the list of names.
Community advocates called for new assurances that privacy protections would be strengthened. “It’s a dangerous thing when citizens no longer trust their government,” Ayloush said.