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Presidential Emergency Action Documents

Presidential Emergency Action Documents (PEADs) are executive orders, proclamations, and messages to Congress that are prepared in anticipation of a range of emergency scenarios.

Last Updated: May 26, 2022
Published: May 6, 2020

Click here to read more about docu­ments obtained from the George W. Bush Pres­id­en­tial Library through a Free­dom of Inform­a­tion Act request.

Pres­id­en­tial Emer­gency Action Docu­ments (PEADs) are exec­ut­ive orders, proclam­a­tions, and messages to Congress that are prepared in anti­cip­a­tion of a range of emer­gency scen­arios, so that they are ready to sign and put into effect the moment one of those scen­arios comes to pass. First created during the Eisen­hower Admin­is­tra­tion as part of continu­ity-of-govern­ment plans in case of a nuclear attack, PEADs have since been expan­ded for use in other emer­gency situ­ations where the normal oper­a­tion of govern­ment is impaired. As one recent govern­ment docu­ment describes them, they are designed “to imple­ment extraordin­ary pres­id­en­tial author­ity in response to extraordin­ary situ­ations.”

PEADs are clas­si­fied “secret,” and no PEAD has ever been declas­si­fied or leaked. Indeed, it appears that they are not even subject to congres­sional over­sight. Although the law requires the exec­ut­ive branch to report even the most sens­it­ive covert milit­ary and intel­li­gence oper­a­tions to at least some members of Congress, there is no such disclos­ure require­ment for PEADs, and no evid­ence that the docu­ments have ever been shared with relev­ant congres­sional commit­tees.

Although PEADs them­selves remain a well-kept secret, over the years a number of unclas­si­fied or de-clas­si­fied docu­ments have become avail­able that discuss PEADs. Through these docu­ments, we know that there were 56 PEADs in effect as of 2017, up from 48 a couple of decades earlier. PEADs undergo peri­odic revi­sion; although we do not know what PEADs contain today, we know that PEADs in past years—

  • author­ized deten­tion of “alien enemies” and other “danger­ous persons” within the United States;
  • suspen­ded the writ of habeas corpus by pres­id­en­tial order;
  • provided for vari­ous forms of martial law;
  • issued a general warrant permit­ting search and seizure of persons and prop­erty;
  • estab­lished milit­ary areas such as those created during World War II;
  • suspen­ded produc­tion of the Federal Register;
  • declared a State of War; and
  • author­ized censor­ship of news reports.

The Bren­nan Center’s Liberty and National Secur­ity Program researches PEADs and advoc­ates for greater trans­par­ency and over­sight of them. As a resource to others inter­ested in this topic, below we have compiled our own analyses and op-eds; a running list of congres­sional actions; and govern­ment docu­ments discuss­ing PEADs, includ­ing docu­ments that others have obtained through Free­dom of Inform­a­tion Act (FOIA) requests and placed on the inter­net and docu­ments that we have obtained through our own FOIA or Mandat­ory Declas­si­fic­a­tion Review requests.

Congressional Actions

  • On April 24, 2020, House Judi­ciary Commit­tee Chair­man Rep. Jerrold Nadler and Subcom­mit­tee on the Consti­tu­tion, Civil Rights, and Civil Liber­ties Chair­man Steve Cohen sent a letter to Attor­ney General William Barr request­ing a brief­ing and docu­ments related to PEADs.
  • On May 5, 2020, Senator Ed Markey intro­duced the Restraint of Exec­ut­ive In Govern­ing Nation Act of 2020 requir­ing that the pres­id­ent disclose PEADs to the appro­pri­ate congres­sional commit­tees.
  • Accord­ing to the Asso­ci­ated Press, in May 2020 a bi-partisan group of Senat­ors sent a letter to then Acting Director of National Intel­li­gence Richard Grenell asking to be briefed on PEADs.
  • On Septem­ber 23, 2020, House Demo­crats intro­duced as part of the Protect­ing Our Demo­cracy Act a require­ment that the pres­id­ent disclose PEADs to the relev­ant congres­sional commit­tees.
  • On May 17, 2022, the House Judi­ciary Subcom­mit­tee on the Consti­tu­tion, Civil Rights, and Civil Liber­ties held a hear­ing on reform­ing emer­gency powers, includ­ing PEADs.

Documents

Pres­id­ent Dwight D. Eisen­hower

  • 1956 Letter from White House Exec­ut­ive Office of the Pres­id­ent, Office of Defense Mobil­iz­a­tion to Director of the CIA, with attached memo on “Proced­ure for Agen­cies to Follow in Submit­ting Emer­gency Action Docu­ments to the Pres­id­ent”; Letter from CIA to Office of Defense Mobil­iz­a­tion respond­ing.
  • 1956 Letter from Maxwell M. Rabb, Secret­ary of the Cabinet, with attached memo on “Emer­gency Action Papers.”
  • April 1959 “Federal Emer­gency Plan D-Minus,” prepared by White House Exec­ut­ive Office of the Pres­id­ent, Office of Civil and Defense Mobil­iz­a­tion, and circu­lated to 40 federal agen­cies.
  • June 1959 “Federal Emer­gency Plan D-Minus,” prepared by White House Exec­ut­ive Office of the Pres­id­ent, Office of Civil and Defense Mobil­iz­a­tion, and circu­lated to 40 federal agen­cies.
  • June 1959 Annex to Federal Emer­gency Plans, prepared by White House Exec­ut­ive Office of the Pres­id­ent, Office of Civil and Defense Mobil­iz­a­tion, on “Proced­ures for Pres­id­en­tial Actions and Docu­ments.”

Pres­id­ent John F. Kennedy

  • 1962 Report to the Pres­id­ent, prepared by Emer­gency Plan­ning Commit­tee, on “Federal Policy with Respect to Emer­gency Plans and Continu­ity of Govern­ment in the Event of Nuclear Attack on the United States.”

Pres­id­ent Lyndon B. John­son

  • 1965 Memo from Office of Emer­gency Plan­ning to White House Assist­ant Press Secret­ary on “Inten­ded Press Releases Relat­ing to Pres­id­en­tial Emer­gency Actions”
  • 1965 Memo from J.V. Joseph­son to General Clifton regard­ing PEADs, the Foot­ball, and other topics
  • 1965 Memo, likely from General Clifton, regard­ing PEADs
  • 1967 Memo from FBI to unknown; Memo from FBI to DOJ
  • 1967 DOJ Office of Legal Coun­sel memo regard­ing review of PEADs

Pres­id­ent Richard Nixon

  • 1972 CIA Memo and proposed letter to Office of Emer­gency Prepared­ness
  • 1972 Trans­mit­tal slip; CIA Memo
  • Unknown date CIA letter to Office of Emer­gency Prepared­ness
  • 1972 CIA Rout­ing slips, CIA Memo; Signed letter to Office of Emer­gency Prepared­ness
  • 1972 CIA Trans­mit­tal slip; CIA Memo; CIA Note; CIA Rout­ing Slip; Memo from Office of Emer­gency Prepared­ness to “Head of Depart­ments and Agen­cies”

Pres­id­ent Gerald Ford

Pres­id­ent Jimmy Carter

Pres­id­ent Ronald Reagan

Pres­id­ent George H.W. Bush

Pres­id­ent Bill Clin­ton

Pres­id­ent George W. Bush

Click here to read more about docu­ments obtained from the George W. Bush Pres­id­en­tial Library through a Free­dom of Inform­a­tion Act request.

Pres­id­ent Barack Obama

Pres­id­ent Donald Trump

Multiple Pres­id­en­cies 1956–1978

Brennan Center PEADs Analysis and Op-Eds