30.3.07

WAR IS THE HEALTH OF THE STATE. The Secret Service perceives a vague threat against the President. With no evidence of wrongdoing, the Executive subjects law-abiding citizens to secret invasions of privacy and indefinite detention on unspecified charges. There is no evidence of the mainstream press uncovering the invasions. The opposition party refrains from criticizing the detentions.

We are not, however, contemplating President Bush on September 11, or the TALON database, or the prison at Guantanamo Bay, or complicity by the New York Times and the Democrats. We are reading about President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Bureau of the Census. There were internment camps in the western states for Americans of Japanese extraction, and the opposition party was the Republicans.

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 area.

Those Depression-era politicians could give today's leadership a clinic in plausible deniability.

The Census Bureau's role in helping the government ferret out Japanese-Americans during the war has been documented in previous research by [Fordham's William] Seltzer and [Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Margo] 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 says.

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.

The disclosure is also a call for critics and defenders of current homeland security measures to go beyond tu quoque arguments.

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.

Disclaimer: much of my lead paragraph is carefully selected sentences from Joe Conason's recent It Can Happen Here, which will be the subject of a review in the near future. In that review, I want to get beyond Mr Conason's antipathy toward President Bush to consider the substance of his argument, as well as the pitfalls inherent in attempting to govern a free country in time of war.

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