Every president since FDR has drawn up such plans. The most notorious were Nixon’s “Operation Garden Plot” and Reagan’s “REX 84 Alpha”—a legacy we recalled when the Homeland Security Act passed in 2002. This latest incarnation has gone unnoticed by the New York Times and other major media. Leave it to the editorial page of Tennessee’s Chattanoogan, May 24:
Bush Makes Power Grab
President Bush, without so much as issuing a press statement, on May 9 signed a directive that granted near dictatorial powers to the office of the president in the event of a national emergency declared by the president.
The “National Security and Homeland Security Presidential Directive,” with the dual designation of NSPD-51, as a National Security Presidential Directive, and HSPD-20, as a Homeland Security Presidential Directive, establishes under the office of president a new National Continuity Coordinator.
That job, as the document describes, is to make plans for “National Essential Functions” of all federal, state, local, territorial, and tribal governments, as well as private sector organizations to continue functioning under the president’s directives in the event of a national emergency.
The directive loosely defines “catastrophic emergency” as “any incident, regardless of location, that results in extraordinary levels of mass casualties, damage, or disruption severely affecting the U.S. population, infrastructure, environment, economy, or government functions.”
When the President determines a catastrophic emergency has occurred, the President can take over all government functions and direct all private sector activities to ensure we will emerge from the emergency with an “enduring constitutional government.”
Translated into layman’s terms, when the President determines a national emergency has occurred, the President can declare to the office of the presidency powers usually assumed by dictators to direct any and all government and business activities until the emergency is declared over.
Ironically, the directive sees no contradiction in the assumption of dictatorial powers by the President with the goal of maintaining constitutional continuity through an emergency.
The directive specifies that the assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism will be designated as the National Continuity Coordinator. Further established is a Continuity Policy Coordination Committee, chaired by a senior director from the Homeland Security Council staff, designated by the National Continuity Coordinator, to be “the main day-to-day forum for such policy coordination.”
Currently, the assistant to the president for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism is Frances Fragos Townsend. Townsend spent 13 years at the Justice Department before moving to the U.S. Coast Guard where she served as assistant commandant for intelligence. She is a White House staff member in the executive office of the president who also chairs the Homeland Security Council, which as a counterpart to the National Security Council reports directly to the president.
The directive issued May 9 makes no attempt to reconcile the powers created there for the National Continuity Coordinator with the National Emergency Act. As specified by U.S. Code Title 50, Chapter 34, Subchapter II, Section 1621, the National Emergency Act allows that the president may declare a national emergency but requires that such proclamation “shall immediately be transmitted to the Congress and published in the Federal Register.”
A Congressional Research Service study notes that under the National Emergency Act, the President “may seize property, organize and control the means of production, seize commodities, assign military forces abroad, institute martial law, seize and control all transportation and communication, regulate the operation of private enterprise, restrict travel, and, in a variety of ways, control the lives of United States citizens.”
The CRS study notes that the National Emergency Act sets up congress as a balance empowered to “modify, rescind, or render dormant such delegated emergency authority,” if Congress believes the president has acted inappropriately.
NSPD-51/ HSPD-20 appears to supersede the National Emergency Act by creating the new position of National Continuity Coordinator without any specific act of Congress authorizing the position.
NSPD-51/ HSPD-20 also makes no reference whatsoever to Congress. The language of the May 9 directive appears to negate any a requirement that the President submit to Congress a determination that a national emergency exists, suggesting instead that the powers of the executive order can be implemented without any congressional approval or oversight.
Homeland Security spokesperson Russ Knocke affirmed that the Homeland Security Department will be implementing the requirements of NSPD-51/HSPD-20 under Townsend’s direction.
The White House had no comment.
While we’re skeptical Bush will have the cojones to pull this off, NSPD-51 is particularly ominous in light of the draconian provisions of the 2007 National Defense Authorization Act.
See our last post on the politics of the GWOT.