Understanding PEAD's - Presidential Emergency Action Documents & Continuity of Government

March 31, 2022

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

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.

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