Declassified and released: More secret files on US govt's emergency doomsday powers

Nuke incoming? Quick break out the plans for rationing, censorship, property seizures, and more


More papers describing the orders and messages the US President can issue in the event of apocalyptic crises, such as a devastating nuclear attack, have been declassified and released for all to see.

These government files are part of a larger collection of records that discuss the nature, reach, and use of secret Presidential Emergency Action Documents: these are executive orders, announcements, and statements to Congress that are all ready to sign and send out as soon as a doomsday scenario occurs. PEADs are supposed to give America's commander-in-chief immediate extraordinary powers to overcome extraordinary events.

PEADs have never been declassified or revealed before. They remain hush-hush, and their exact details are not publicly known.

That said, files revealing internal government discussions and policies on the development and use of PEADs have been, over the past few years, collected and released by the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonprofit focused on legal policy, through freedom of information requests. These files cover PEADs drafted under various administrations from President Dwight Eisenhower during the Cold War to Donald Trump during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The survival of the Presidency could be in doubt

"Through these documents, we know that there were 56 PEADs in effect as of 2017, up from 48 a couple of decades earlier," the center's landing page for its collection reads.

For example, it appears some of these emergency actions included an authorization to censor news reports, detain anyone designated a foreign enemy, suspend the writ of habeas corpus, and allow the search and seizure of persons and property.

Take for instance this report [PDF] from 1962 by the Emergency Planning Committee during John F. Kennedy's presidency that tackled the issue of a nuclear strike on the capital potentially wiping out not just the President but anyone who could replace them, requiring plans for avoiding that and decentralizing government functions if needed.

"The survival of the Presidency could be in doubt during a critical decision-making period if the elected President were lost, since all eligible successors usually live and work in the Washington DC area and could be casualties of the same attack," the file, shared by the Brennan center, stated.

The file also describes rationing to prevent the hoarding of essential things, such as food and water, and efforts to maintain public morale and basic liberties after an attack.

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Another document [PDF] from 1959 describing the aftermath of a Soviet nuclear attack estimated 48 million people would die, leaving 12 million survivors making up the US population. Nuclear apocalypse remained the top risk for the US government over the Cold War. The fear of terrorism took over post-9/11. The White House said [PDF] the Department of Defense, for example, will provide fingerprints of all known or suspected terrorists to the FBI in 2004.

When the COVID-19 pandemic was declared a national emergency, Senator Edward Markey (D-MA) proposed [PDF] a bill to try and force the President to submit any PEADs that had come into effect for legal scrutiny. Those documents would have to be declassified within 180 days with a redacted version to be publicly released.

"The Bren­nan Center's Liberty and National Security Program researches PEADs and advocates for greater transparency and oversight of them," the think tank said.

The center has had a modest archive of these files on its site since mid-2020. Now the center has obtained about 500 pages from the George W. Bush Presidential Library – some 6,000 couldn't be released as they remain classified.

These documents shed light on the Bush administration mulling whether it had the authority to flip a communications "kill switch" in an emergency that would cut off internet connectivity as well as telephone lines. Officials also wrestled over the issue of the emergency suspension of habeas corpus in light of a court ruling that Guantanamo Bay prisoners had the right to challenge their detention before a judge.

Locking down the use of US passports to prevent travel was also on the table in the GWB era, and more. A lot of it is dry, though if you like looking through declassified information, you'll probably find some weekend reading here. The main thing to remember is that there is next to no oversight of these emergency powers.

"With Congress unable to serve its constitutional role as a check on the executive branch, there remains the possibility that modern PEADs, like their historical predecessors, sacrifice Americans’ constitutional rights and the rule of law in the name of emergency planning," the Bren­nan center's Benjamin Waldman noted.

"Congress should pass Sen. Ed Markey’s REIGN Act, which has been incorporated into the Protecting Our Democracy Act and the National Security Reforms and Accountability Act, to bring these shadowy powers to account." ®


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