Secret Presidential Powers

Author: Gary Hart

My late colleague and friend, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, wrote a book entitled Secrecy: The American Experience.  After repeatedly being told that “I’m sorry we can’t give you that document or answer your question: that is secret” time and again, he led a commission that examined the U.S. Governments’ proclivity to classify anything and everything, even from Senators with a duty to know.

This came to with the recent head-snapping opinion piece “Trump Has Emergency Powers We Aren’t Secret Presidential Powers Allowed to Know About” (NYT, April 10, 2020).  To say this has caught the attention of many Americans, including present and former senior government officials, is a great understatement.

Various movements are afoot to identify these documents, referred to in the opinion piece as “presidential emergency action documents” or PEADs, to also identify the inner circle in Washington with access to them, and most of all to find out what these secret emergency powers actually are.

The fact that we are closing in on a national election featuring what might politely be called an unconventional president, whose right hand man has recently floated a trial balloon about postponing the election itself, has sharply honed the interest in these emergency powers which can be deployed by…the president himself.

Former senior officials of past administrations of both parties have either stated that they never heard of these secret documents, or they have been unresponsive.

Thanks to the Brennan Center at New York University School of Law, whose scholars researched the matter and wrote the opinion piece, we know that accumulation of these secret documents began in the Eisenhower years and continued through every administration since.  They were designed to anticipate massively destructive nuclear war and revised to greater or lesser degree in both the Reagan and Obama administrations.  Some of these powers may have been employed without fanfare following 9/11.

There is something called the Continuity of Government Plan, known by some but not all, who may, or may not, view these documents as implementation of that Plan.  Like virtually everything else about these mystery powers, this is not completely transparent.

And that is the point.  Why are these documents secret?  It would be less than prudent for the Government of the United States not to plan for extreme emergencies. To avoid this kind of planning would be impeachable folly.

So, are they secret from the Russians, who now gleefully participate in our elections without penalty?  To ask the question is to answer it.  They are secret from the American people.  Why?

Some sources say that the secret powers may include suspension of habeas corpus and thus imprisonment without a hearing or judicial review.  They may include blackout of the media.  They may include searches and seizures without a Constitutional warrant.  And, they might even empower a president to suspend an election required by law and the Constitution.

Why cannot elected representatives of the people in the House and Senate review these plans and powers?  It has been estimated that no more Members of Congress than the fingers on one hand even have heard of these secret documents, let alone have reviewed them.

After more than 50 years of active involvement in national security, defense, and intelligence matters, including as a member of the Senate Select Committee to Investigate the Intelligence Services of the United States, and as co-chair of the U.S. Commission on National Security for the 21st Century, I find these documents to represent a potential roadmap to dictatorship.

Despite a number of temptations to cry wolf, I have never done so…until now.  This wolf is very real.

The people of the United States have the right to know what secret powers the Chief Executive of our nation possesses, to be employed on his own recognizance.

Too many things can happen before, during, or after the November national election to leave this matter in secrecy.  We all need to know what is going on here.

It is our country after all.



9 Responses to “Secret Presidential Powers”

  1. Stephen sD. Pillow Says:

    “Some sources say that the secret powers may include suspension of habeas corpus and thus imprisonment without a hearing or judicial review. They may include blackout of the media. They may include searches and seizures without a Constitutional warrant. And, they might even empower a president to suspend an election required by law and the Constitution.”

    Ah, there’s the rub. I have been talking about this for over a year now. I am glad to see someone else raise the alarm about these issues.

    And the democratic response? Silenced. Nothing. No action.

    I guess that we won’t have an election in November unless der Fuehrer can insure his reelection.

  2. Stephen D. Pillow Says:

    To all:

    I know that a number of you are tired of hearing me rant about what is to come. The author of this commentary is worse than me , but far better informed on the subject.

    “I would be happy to be wrong. But I have seen this before. I know the warning signs. All I can say is get ready.”

  3. Elizabeth Miller Says:

    I’m not sure anyone has seen anything like this before …

  4. Paul G Says:


  5. Elizabeth Miller Says:

    The White House didn’t even have to learn history. The White House could have just followed the good and early advice of the WHO and accepted the diagnostic tests they were offering. Oh, wait …

  6. Stephen D. Pillow Says:


    I don’t think that you have either, however, there is precedence for the suspension of habeas corpus, blackout of the media, as well as a declaration of martial law, with the additional suppression of the press and suspension of federal court trials. The latter was replaced with a military court system. All f this was enacted under President Abraham Lincoln, much of it during the early days of the Civil War.

  7. Michael Says:

    I could see the original need for secrecy. An enemy attempting to decapitate the federal government in a nuclear first strike could be aided in the endeavor if those plans were broadly known. Conversely, secrecy enables any such plans to grow exponentially and to become a monstrous threat to democracy. Even then, with a government of checks and balances that respects norms and enforces guardrails, that threat, while ever-present, is minimal. But now, suddenly, we find ourselves in a different country; one in which the president finds joy in blowing past the guardrails with a Republican Party fully aiding and abetting him. No one knows how this will end. Any scenario is possible.

  8. Stephen D. Pillow Says:

    Michael. well and concisely put. This is exactly my point and fear. Thank you.

  9. Eric C. Jacobson Says:

    While it is off-topic, I note that today is the late great President John F. Kennedy’s birthday. He was born 103 years ago today. (At home, not in a hospital.)

    He’s been on my mind lately due to the release on March 27, 2020 of Bob Dylan’s epic song about his assassination titled Murder Most Foul.

    While the song is a stunning masterpiece (one which I’m glad I’ve lived long enough to experience—it’s that good) its one weakness is the profound-but-too-short-shrift it gives to what JFK stood-for in life.

    Because I’m resolutely of the view that restoring the FDR-Truman-JFK ethos is the only viable political path forward for non-conservatives I reduced my contentions to this effect to an op-ed writing in time for publication online this morning.

    The writing is a semi-Proustian melange (in which the host is honorably mentioned), deals with “tough stuff” (as one online interviewer of sociologist Donald Gibson—who has cracked the JFK murder case—put it) and is meant in part to encourage readers to read Gibson’s books.

    And who knows, maybe some earnest idealistic young man or woman “out there” will read it, click on the link to the outstanding video of JFK in action in a Madison Square Garden speech promoting support for his single-payer coverage through Social Security for hospitalization for those over 65 (which legislation became Medicare in 1965) and say to himself: That’s how it’s done! And secondly: Why oh why did the Democrats not try to replace him? And thirdly: What is to be done?

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