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The Huston Plan


John Simkin
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I think it would be worthwhile starting a thread on the Huston Plan. The following passage from Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin's book, Silent Coup: The Removal of Richard Nixon (1991), is a good starting point:

Shortly after assuming his position, John Dean began thinking about expanding his domain, and hired former Army officer Fred F. Fielding as an assistant lawyer in the counsel's office. They became close friends. In Dean's 1976 memoir, Blind Ambition, he recounted how he explained to his new associate the way in which their careers could quickly rise: "Fred, I think we have to look at our office as a small law firm.... We have to build our practice like any other law firm. Our principal client, of course, is the president. But to convince the president we're not just the only law office in town, but the best, we've got to convince a lot of other people first." Especially Haldeman and Ehrlichman.

But how to convince them? As Dean tried to assess the situation at the White House, events soon showed him that intelligence gathering was the key to power in the Nixon White House. One of Dean's first assignments from Haldeman was to look over a startling proposal to revamp the government's domestic intelligence operations in order to neutralize radical groups such as the Black Panthers and the Weathermen.

The scheme had been the work of another of the White House's bright young stalwarts, Nixon aide Tom Charles Huston. The impetus was a meeting chaired by Nixon in the Oval Office on June 5, 1970, attended by J. Edgar Hoover, Richard Helms, and the chiefs of the NSA and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). The various agencies were almost at war with one another; just a few months earlier, for instance, Hoover had cut all FBI communication with the CIA. Nixon wanted the agencies to work together against the threat from the "New Left." In the aftermath of Nixon's decision in May 1970 to invade Cambodia, and the killings of several students at Kent State University, colleges all over the country were again being rocked by riots and demonstrations as they had been in the last year of Lyndon Johnson's presidency, and for the same reason-young people were objecting to the president's war policies. In Nixon's view, the threat was grave and must be attacked; therefore the agencies must find some way to bury their differences and concentrate on the true enemy. Huston was assigned to help Hoover and the intelligence chiefs clear obstacles to their working jointly on these matters.

In early July, Huston sent a long analysis to the president, endorsed by Hoover and the other intelligence agency directors, on how to enhance cooperation. To this memo Huston added his own secret one that became known as the "Huston Plan." It called for six activities, some of which were clearly illegal. They included electronic surveillance of persons and groups "who pose a major threat to internal security"; monitoring of American citizens by international communications facilities; the relaxation of restrictions on the covert opening of mail by federal agents; surreptitious entries and burglaries to gain information on the groups; the recruitment of more campus informants; and, to ensure that the objectives were carried out and that intelligence continued to be gathered, the formation of a new interagency group consisting of the agencies at the June 5 meeting and military counter-intelligence agencies. Nixon endorsed these measures in the Huston Plan on July 14, 1970, because, as he put it in his memoir, "I felt they were necessary and justified by the violence we faced."

The secret plan angered J. Edgar Hoover, not because he objected to coming down hard on dissidents, but, rather, because he felt that any new interagency group would encroach on the turf of the FBI and because he was concerned about the negative public reaction should any of the activities be exposed. On July 27, the day Dean began work at the White House, Hoover took the unusual step of venturing out of his own domain to visit his nominal superior, Attorney General John Mitchell. As Hoover learned, Mitchell did not know anything about the Huston Plan at the time. "I was kept in the dark until I found out about it from Hoover," Mitchell later told us. But as soon as he was apprised of the plan, Mitchell agreed with Hoover that it must be stopped-not for Hoover's reasons, but because it contained clearly unconstitutional elements-and immediately visited Nixon and told him it could not go forward. In testament to Mitchell's arguments and good sense, Nixon canceled the plan shortly thereafter and Huston was relieved of his responsibilities in the area of domestic intelligence.

Coordination of official domestic intelligence from various federal agencies concerning anti-war activists and other "radicals" was then handed to the new White House counsel, John Dean, along with a copy of the rejected Huston Plan. But it seemed that the president was still not satisfied with the quality of domestic intelligence, because in August and September Haldeman pushed Dean to try and find a way around the Hoover road-block. In pursuit of a solution, on September 17, 1970, Dean went to see his old boss, John Mitchell. Hours earlier, Mitchell had lunched with Director Helms and other senior CIA officials who had all agreed that the FBI wasn't doing a very good job of collecting domestic intelligence.

Dean and Mitchell spoke, and the next day Dean prepared a memo to Mitchell with several suggestions: "There should be a new committee set up, an interagency group to evaluate the government's domestic intelligence product, and it should have "operational" responsibilities as well. Both men, Dean's memo said, had agreed that "it would be inappropriate to have any blanket removal of restrictions" such as had been proposed in the Huston Plan; instead, Dean suggested that "The most appropriate procedure would be to decide on the type of intelligence we need, based on an assessment of the recommendations of this unit, and then to proceed to remove the restraints as necessary to obtain such intelligence."

Dean's plan languished and was never put into operation. Years later, in the spring of 1973, when Dean was talking to federal prosecutors and preparing to appear before the Senate committee investigating Watergate, he gave a copy of the Huston Plan to Federal Judge John J. Sirica, who turned it over to the Senate committee. Dean's action helped to establish his bona fides as the accuser of the president and was the cause of much alarm. In his testimony and writings thereafter, Dean suggested that he had always been nervous about the Huston Plan and that he had tried to get around it, and as a last resort had gotten John Mitchell to kill the revised version. In an interview, Dean told us, "I looked at that goddamn Tom Huston report," went to Mitchell and said, "General, I find it pretty spooky." But as the September 18, 1970, memo to Mitchell shows, Dean actually embraced rather than rejected the removal of "restraints as necessary to obtain" intelligence.

A small matter? A minor divergence between two versions of the same incident? As will become clear as this inquiry continues, Dean's attempt to gloss over the actual disposition of the Huston Plan was a first sign of the construction of a grand edifice of deceit.

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