Secret plans could give US president emergency powers to shut down the internet, report says

A new analysis of documents from the War on Terror era has indicated that the emergency powers granted to the president during the Cold War could allow the commander-in-chief to take shockingly drastic steps without oversight during an emergency – including turning off all electronic communications.

Analysed by the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice, the documents in question date from the administration of George W. Bush, and are the product of senior staffers’ efforts to refresh the secret Eisenhower-era plans made to ensure that the executive branch could ensure continuity of government in the event of nuclear war.

Though their purpose and existence is well known, these plans, known as “pres­id­en­tial emer­gency action docu­ments” (PEADs), have largely remained secret since they were first drafted in the early Cold War era.

As spelled out by the Brennan Centre’s investigation, however, it has long been suspected that PEADs gave the president the authority to take extreme measures to close down national institutions and remove civil liberties – “to suspend habeas corpus, detain ‘danger­ous persons; within the United States, censor news media, and prevent inter­na­tional travel.”

According to the centre, which secured details of the Bush administration’s review via freedom of information requests, the War-on-Terror-era staff looking into the extent and limits of the PEADs and adjacent documents found them to be “very broad” – and in particular one that could theoretically allow the president to close down the internet.

“At least one of the docu­ments under review,” write the centre’s investigators, “was designed to imple­ment the emer­gency author­it­ies contained in Section 706 of the Commu­nic­a­tions Act. During World War II, Congress gran­ted the pres­id­ent author­ity to shut down or seize control of ‘“any facil­ity or station for wire commu­nic­a­tion’ upon proclam­a­tion ‘that there exists a state or threat of war involving the United States’.

“This fright­en­ingly expans­ive language was, at the time, hemmed in by Amer­ic­ans’ limited use of tele­phone calls and tele­grams. Today, however, a pres­id­ent will­ing to test the limits of his or her author­ity might inter­pret “wire commu­nic­a­tions” to encom­pass the inter­net – and there­fore claim a ‘kill switch’ over vast swaths of elec­tronic commu­nic­a­tion.”

By the time the review in question was completed, the Bush administration had already faced years of criticism over its dramatic expansion of the government’s ability to circumvent previously standard practices when it came to the arrest and detention of suspects and the surveillance of everyday Americans.

Along with the increased use of torture and “extraordinary rendition” – the practice of abducting suspected terrorists in other countries and transporting them via secret flights to detention facilities beyond US borders – the administration was also heavily criticised for authorising the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans’ international phone and email communications without first obtaining warrants from courts.

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