Patriot Act doesn't override confidentiality in Census, Justice Department says

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By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 5, 2010

Provisions of the USA Patriot Act that pertain to the gathering and sharing of information 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 head count since the Sept. 11, 2001, 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 that federal census laws trump the Patriot Act and will bar local, state or other federal agencies from obtaining information compiled by the count.

"If Congress intended to override these protections, it would say so clearly and explicitly," Weich said.

The Justice Department is unaware of any instance in which the Patriot Act has been used to obtain census data, spokesman Alejandro Miyar said Thursday.

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

Imam Johari Abdul-Malik at the Dar al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church has been encouraging fellow Muslims to fill out their census forms, but he acknowledges that he has heard concerns. "It's just a general sense that the more the government knows about you, the more the government knows about you," he said.

Said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials: "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." He added: "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."

The Census Bureau has mounted a multimillion-dollar advertising and outreach campaign to encourage increased participation among minority groups.

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

Staff writer Tara Bahrampour contributed to this report.


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