Like most bureaucrats, Robert Groves, the director of the U.S. Census Bureau, has cultivated a poker face that works pretty well when he's fending off irksome questions from congressmen about why he spent $2.5 million on a TV ad during the Super Bowl or $3 million training employees who were fired before they worked a single day.
But through careful observation of Groves' body language, it's possible for trained observers to interpret his words. When he scratches his right ear, for instance, he's telling the truth. When he cups his chin in his hand or rests a finger on his left cheek, he's telling the truth.
And when he waves a census form in his hand and says, "Your answers are confidential, the Census Bureau cannot give out information that identifies you or your household," he's lying.
Maybe "lying" is too harsh a characterization. Maybe we should regard his promise of confidentiality as simply a Reader's Digest version of the full truth, which would be: "The Census Bureau won't give out information that identifies you or your household unless some other branch of the government wants it so they can burn your home, lock you up in an internment camp, or put you under warrantless surveillance as part of a racial-profiling exercise."
No branch of the American government lies more profligately about its ugly past than the Census Bureau, which tries desperately to portray itself as a cuddly little band of apolitical bean-counters. The reality is that whenever some U.S. government agency decides to go bare-knuckles on its own citizens, the Census Bureau is usually there acting as the waterboy:
• During the Civil War, the bureau provided maps annotated with 1860 census data to Union Gen. William T. Sherman, who used them to launch a war not on the Confederacy's army but on its civilian population. The most infamous product of the Census Bureau's assistance was Sherman's march from Atlanta to the sea, a 300-mile swath of looting and destruction that would properly have been labeled a war crime if the Japanese or German armies had done it in World War II.
Not that Sherman lost his table manners: Afterward, he sent a polite note thanking the Census Bureau for its maps and research. "Without them, I would not have undertaken what was done."
• Early in the 20th century, the Census Bureau was virtually a field office of the Justice Department. Census data was used to help catch draft dodgers during World War I and to help round up left-wing immigrants for deportation during the Palmer Raids of the 1920s.
• In 2002 and 2003, the Census Bureau helpfully sent the Department of Homeland Security lists of ZIP Codes with high concentrations of Arabs, broken down by country of origin. But don't worry! Homeland Security says it just wanted the information so it could make better airport signs.
• Most notoriously, the Census Bureau was at the heart of the internment of 110,000 Japanese Americans (two-thirds of them U.S. citizens) during World War II -- and not at all reluctantly. Within five days of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the bureau had issued three reports using 1940 census data to pinpoint the Japanese-American population by state, city and county.
Eventually, the bureau's statisticians got directly involved. When a new roundup was planned, Census Bureau employees met with Justice Department agents. They "would lay out on a table various city blocks where the Japanese lived and they would tell me how many were living in each block," recalled Tom Clark, then running the Justice Department's alien-control office and later a Supreme Court justice. After that, it was easy for the U.S. Army to conduct house-to-house sweeps.
And if they missed a few, a Census Bureau official said in a 1942 report recently uncovered by historians, "I would give them further means of checking individuals." That is, names.
To be fair, not every leak springing from the Census Bureau results in prison or deportation. Sometimes it's just good clean gossipy fun. In 1981, when I was editing a now-defunct political magazine called Inquiry, we published a first-person account of life inside the Census Bureau's Cleveland office during the 1980 count.
Among the various horrific tales of incompetence, backbiting and general political pork-grinding, the author recounted how work in the office came to a screeching halt when somebody opened an envelope and found the returned form of a popular local TV anchor. "Did he put that weather girl down on his form?" one employee called out. "I wonder if they've got a thing going." I'm not going to tell you what the answer was. But don't worry. The Justice Department is probably calling to ask right now.