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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.

Published: May 6, 2020

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 2018, 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.


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.

President Lyndon B. Johnson

  • 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

President Barack Obama

President Donald Trump

Multiple Presidencies 1956-1978