Column: Presidents, public always struggle with appropriate security and liberty relationship

The Obama administration kills four U.S. citizens in counterterrorist drone strikes overseas. It helps pay for the New York Police Department's controversial surveillance program against Muslim Americans. It says a journalist seeking national security information may have been a criminal "co-conspirator."

All this as it wages the war on terrorism at certain, perhaps necessary, costs to our rights. This president offers no apologies.

"Americans are deeply ambivalent about war, but having fought for our independence, we know a price must be paid for freedom," Barack Obama said last week. Even so, he added, "Our commitment to constitutional principles has weathered every war, and every war has come to an end."

Every American president has faced the same central questions: What is the appropriate relationship between security and liberty? When should the scales tip one way or the other? We have never found a universal answer, which says as much about the enormous challenge our elected leaders accept as it does about who we are and what we value.

Presidents often do what they insist needs to be done to protect their people — and gamble that they'll be forgiven for the inevitable erosion of rights. Congress and the public typically fall in line, particularly in the post-9/11 world. And the nation moves on until the next situation flares.

In general, both presidents and their people inherently believe in America's ability to remain true to its identity and not let others define it, as long as it abides by the country's founding principles. The trouble, or perhaps the gift, is that the framers of our Constitution made sure to include leeway in the ability for leaders to tip the security-vs.-liberty scales when the situation demands.

Benjamin Wittes, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, is among those who don't believe in an exact balance even though a lot of political rhetoric suggests each value carries equal weight.

"Presidential actions to ensure the security of the country do have implications in both directions for people's liberty," Wittes says. "Most things that make you more secure, make you more free. And most things that make you less secure, also make you less free."

This debate inevitably intensifies in wartime.

During 1798 and following the French Revolution, John Adams, the second president, signed into law the Alien and Sedition Acts. That move gave him powers to restrict speech critical of the government and, without a hearing, detain or deport immigrants considered dangerous to the U.S.

In 1862, as the Civil War raged, Abraham Lincoln wanted to deter people from helping the Confederacy. So he suspended the Writ of Habeas Corpus, which ensures prisoners their rights to appear before a judge. He also said Southern sympathizers disrupting Union activities would be subject to martial law.

Just weeks after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created a censoring operation and allowed the government to use private census information to round up Japanese-Americans in internment camps — authority granted by Congress' passage of the first and second War Powers Acts.

And in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush — with overwhelmingly bipartisan support on Capitol Hill and throughout the terror-stricken nation — signed into law the USA Patriot Act. It loosened restrictions on wiretapping, searches and seizures.

It also quickly became controversial. Backers argued that the government needed sweeping powers to root out terrorists; critics claimed civil liberties were needlessly restricted.

Obama inherited the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and many of Bush's policies. Some, like torture and secret prisons, Obama rejected. But he largely kept intact the Patriot Act, signing a four-year extension in 2011.

Both the Bush and Obama administrations have said America is in a war with no foreseeable end. What does that mean for the tension between safety and rights?

Outlining the next phase of America's posture against terrorism, Obama last week said some of the policies "compromised our basic values" while others "raised difficult questions about the balance that we strike between our interests in security and our values of privacy."

A day after his administration acknowledged that it had killed four American citizens abroad in drone strikes since 2009, Obama said, "For the record, I do not believe it would be constitutional for the government to target and kill any U.S. citizen — with a drone, or with a shotgun — without due process." Yet, he also said citizenship should not "serve as a shield" when a U.S. citizen goes abroad to actively plot to kill Americans.

Left unsaid: According to the government, three of the four killed were not specific targets.

Obama also talked about the need to review law-enforcement powers to ensure the government can intercept new types of communication while also protecting against privacy abuses.

He didn't mention that large federal anti-terrorism grants have gone to the New York Police Department, and that a White House anti-drug program helped pay for some surveillance equipment used in the controversial — and, some Muslims say, unconstitutional — targeting by the NYPD of entire Muslim neighborhoods.

At the same time, the president referenced multiple investigations into the unauthorized disclosure of classified national security information to journalists, saying both that some information must be kept secret and the tenets of a free press should be upheld.

"Journalists should not be at legal risk for doing their jobs," Obama added.

He made those comments as his administration took bipartisan heat over the Justice Department's secret seizure of Associated Press journalists' phone records and following the disclosure by The Washington Post that the FBI, in court documents, said a Fox News journalist, whose records it also took, had broken the law, "at the very least, either as an aider, abettor and/or co-conspirator."

After Obama's speech, Republicans complained that he generally wasn't taking the security challenges seriously enough, while the American Civil Liberties Union suggested that he had much further to go to ensure rights are protected.

Of course, neither complete safety nor absolute freedom is ever truly plausible. Nor would a nation want either; that could produce unforeseen, even more consequential, problems.

So, like most presidents, Obama straddled the issues.

"He aligned himself rhetorically with critics of his administration as much as he could while not backing off his administration's ability to do the things it needs to do — and that is a difficult dance," Wittes says. "He really identifies with the conscientious objectors to his policies even as he pursues those policies and in some senses defends those policies."

That could be precisely what the founders wanted presidents to do — be mindful of both sides, while tipping toward security when necessary. After all, they set up a system with perpetual tension baked into the responsibilities of government: Keep us safe and keep us free, or — depending on your philosophy — keep us free and keep us safe.

Or maybe they were even more calculated. Maybe the framers thought that by ensuring a continual debate between security and freedom, they would ensure that Americans would always need to discuss who we are at our core, and let those principles guide us as we monitor our leaders, regardless of who might be living in the White House at any particular moment.

If that was their intent, it's still working today.


EDITOR'S NOTE — Liz Sidoti is the national politics editor for The Associated Press. Follow her on Twitter: