I saluted the Stars and Stripes yesterday to honor our great nation, but my heart was heavy.
I learned this week that the federal government is collecting data on U.S. citizens -- again. But this time, they are warning us up front that they are invading our privacy and will fine us if we don't answer a questionnaire from the American Community Survey, sponsored by the Department of Commerce and disseminated by the U.S. Census Bureau. It is worth noting that the U.S. Census Bureau survey routinely comes around every 10 years.
The new survey comes on the heels of two recent astonishing revelations in the national media that make this observer suspicious that big government is out of control. In recent weeks, two major scandals aroused the ire of the American public:
1) The Department of Justice had been conducting highly secret tapings of reporters' telephones at the Associated Press. This is an incursion of the First Amendment and potentially a disastrous blow that would prevent reporters from talking candidly to their sources. People could become too intimidated to reveal vital information to the public -- the key to a thriving democracy.
2) The National Security Agency, with assistance from major telecommunications carriers, has been intercepting Americans' phone calls and emails. As one expert observed, "This isn't a wiretap, it's a country-tap." Last weekend, President BarackObama, interrupted his trip to Africa to address Americans back home. "The American people don't have a Big Brother who is snooping into their business," he said in answer to a question about the international hunt for a national-security leaker. "I am confident of that. But I want to make sure everybody is confident of that." In recent weeks he has said that, "No one is listening to your calls." He explained that only the telephone numbers were being monitored, not the conversations." To me, that stretches the president's credibility. But I am willing to take him at his word.
This week, I received -- as I am sure many other Westporters have, too -- a form letter and glossy brochure from the American Community survey "Presorted First-Class Mail, Postage and Fees paid, U.S. Census Bureau," requiring me by federal mandate to fill out scores of questions contained in the survey.
Its purpose, it states, is to collect data "about the well-being of children families, and the older population to provide services to them. By responding to the American Community survey questionnaire you are helping your community to establish goals, identify problems and solutions, and measure the performance of programs..."
In the brochure itself, this question is highlighted in boldface: Do I have to answer the questions on the American Community Survey?
"Yes, your response to this survey is required by law (title 13, U.S. Code, Sections 141 and 193). Title 13, as changed by Title 18, imposes a penalty for not responding. We estimate the survey will take about 40 minutes to complete." I looked up this statute. "It reads as follows: US-Census- Sections 141 and 193 as their authority to request the information 13 U.S.C. § 141 and Section 221 of Title 13 U.S.C., makes it a misdemeanor to refuse to willfully [answer this questionnaire] ... This fine was changed by the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 from $100 to not more than $5,000."
The bureau also stated the information is for "statistical purposes only and cannot publish a release of information that would identify you and your households." To better understand this inquiry, I called the Justice Department first to find out more about the fines -- obviously a ploy to get citizens to reply. A spokesman, who refused to identify himself, stated vehemently: "I cannot answer your questions. I have to protect myself."
No real fine levied
I pressed him for an answer: You won't believe his reply: "There are no fines if you do not fill out a questionnaire. If we do not hear from you, a field agent will visit you and follow-up. That sentence in the letter is meant only to get your attention. Nobody has ever been fined. It's strange, I admit, doing this."
To this writer, this is pure bureaucratic double-speak.
Another spokesman obliquely explained: "With every federal regulation there must be a law that carries a warning of a fine." I asked him if that was an "incentive" or a "threat" to get people to answer the questionnaire. "The questionnaire is mandatory by law," he replied, "but, as I said, we do not actually fine anyone." Further, nobody knew -- or would say -- how much the entire project would cost in taxpayer dollars.
To me, it is an empty threat designed to frighten an average citizen to comply with the directive. Some of the questions are intrusive and extremely personal, asking about health, financial, mental and physical conditions.
This survey is another glaring example of attempted top-down management and intrusion by big government into local communities who have better answers to their problems than Washington bureaucrats do. Certainly, with all the plans we have under way in Westport, we definitely do not need the federal government prying into our community.
Under fire from GOP
The survey has already become controversial in some Republican ranks. In an article published in May of 2012, The New York Times ran this headline: "The Beginning of the End of the Census?" The article stated, in part: "The American Community Survey may be the most important government function you've never heard of, and it's in trouble.
"This survey of American households has been around in some form since 1850, either as a longer version of or a richer supplement to the basic decennial census..." the Times reported.
However, some Republicans challenge its cost and effectiveness. "This is a program that intrudes on people's lives, just like the Environmental Protection Agency or the bank regulators," said Daniel Webster, a first-term Republican congressman from Florida. We're spending $70 per person to fill this out. That's just not cost effective," he continued, "especially since in the end this is not a scientific survey. It's a random survey," he was quoted saying.
The program is still operating despite partisan opposition. In fact, the Republican-led House voted last year to eliminate the survey altogether "on the grounds that the government should not be butting its nose into Americans' homes," the Times reported.
In any case, in this digital age, the government already has more than enough information on all Americans.
Woody Klein is a Westport writer, and his "Out of the Woods" column appears every other Friday. He can be reached at email@example.com