5 Examples Of Presidents Who Have Made the Hard Choice Between Liberty and Security


This Thursday, President Obama will deliver a speech on counterterrorism at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C.

The speech will probably touch on two of the most controversial elements of Obama’snational security program – drone strikes and the terrorist prison at Guantanamo Bay. Drone strikes and indefinite detention of alleged terrorists begs the question of whether America is sacrificing liberty for security and if that sacrifice puts America on the path to increased tyranny. Obama’s administration is not the first to have to decide between security and liberty. Here are 5 examples when American presidents faced with choosing security or liberty, chose security, generally with the blessing of Congress and/or the American people.

1. John Adams – Alien and Sedition Act (1798)

Adams, one of the Founding Fathers, was the Massachusetts delegate to the first and second Continental Congress, was the George Washington’s vice president, and was the second president. Faced with growing concern that the French Revolution could see a copy cat movement land in America, he signed into law four acts which stripped Americans and immigrants of their personal liberties. The Alien and Sedition Act gave the president the power to deport foreigners — i.e. immigrants — without a hearing, and made it difficult for them to vote. The law prohibited public opposition to the government, and individuals could be fined and imprisoned for writing, printing, uttering, or publishing any false, scandalous and malicious writing against the government.

2. Abraham Lincoln – Suspends the Writ of Habeas Corpus (1862)

“Honest Abe,” “The Great Emancipator,” not only declared martial law during the Civil War but he also suspended the Writ of Habeas Corpus, which requires a person under arrest to be brought before a judge or into court. Lincoln famously made the decision during the Civil War in order to discourage sympathizers from aiding the Southern states. Now the Constitution specifically allows for the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus in cases where rebellion or invasion threatens the public safety. Lincoln suspended the rights of all prisoners of war wherever they may be and went so far as to state that anyone aiding the “insurrection,” including people who discouraged volunteer enlistment in the Union Army, were subject to martial law. You may not support the indefinite detention provision clause in the NDAA, but remember one thing — today, Lincoln is on Mount Rushmore.

3. Woodrow Wilson – The Lever Food and Fuel Control Act (1917)

Wilson won a Nobel Peace Prize for his work in ending World War I and creating the League of Nations. But during the war he threw political opponents (Eugene Debs) in jail and Congress granted him the authority to directly control the economy. The Lever Food and Fuel Control Act (1917) gave Wilson direct, but varying authority over the price and distribution of coal, oil, natural gas, and food. In January 1918, Wilson ordered all factories east of the Mississippi to close for four days to conserve coal. The official name of the act was "An Act to Provide Further for the National Security and Defense by Encouraging the Production, Conserving the Supply, and Controlling the Distribution of Food Products and Fuel."

4. Franklin Delano Roosevelt – War Powers Act of 1941

The War Powers Act of 1941 gave the president the authority to reorganize large parts of the government to maximize the war effort. There were two parts to the act. The first part gave the president the authority to censor mail and other forms of communication between the United States and foreign countries. FDR set up the Office of Censorship so that for purposes of national security no information “may reach the enemy, inadvertently or otherwise, through the medium of the mails, radio, or cable transmission, or by any other means.”  

The act also “called upon a patriotic press and radio to abstain voluntarily from the dissemination of detailed information of certain kinds, such as reports of the movements of vessels and troops.”

In today’s hyperactive, 24/7/365, embedded news correspondent environment it has become almost impossible to keep information out of enemy hands. If you are an Al-Qaeda terrorist in Yemen and you want to know what the government knows just turn on CNN or offer someone an “exclusive.”

The Second War Powers act allowed the government to seize real estate and re-purpose its use by the Army or Navy. It also allowed the government to access private information gathered through the census to be used to identify Japanese-Americans for internment. Elements of the War Powers Act live on today in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

5. George W. Bush – The PATRIOT Act (2001)

The PATRIOT Act (2001) was enacted in direct response to the Sept 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Centers, the Pentagon and the Capitol. It was passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in the Senate (98-1) and the House (357-66). Critics of the PATRIOT Act say that it infringes on so many civil liberties that places America on the road to tyranny. The act, officially known as the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001, reduces the right to privacy and allows the government to perform unwarranted wiretapping as well as unlawful searches and seizures without notification. The act suspends the Fifth and Sixth Amendments, rights of due process and trial by jury, respectively for those arrested under its provisions. The invasive act made changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA), the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 (ECPA), the Money Laundering Control Act of 1986 and Bank Secrecy Act (BSA), as well as the Immigration and Nationality Act.

Obama signed a four-year extension to the act in 2011.