Washington, DC, June 25, 2020 — Portions of a long-secret government blueprint for expansive surveillance of domestic protest movements during the Nixon presidency have just been released, more than 50 years after it was drafted. The notorious “Huston Plan” prepared by representatives of the White House and the U.S. intelligence community envisioned a smorgasbord of covert operations that made even FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover queasy. The proposed activities ranged from monitoring domestic dissident groups — notably the Black Panthers — to office break-ins.
Named for Tom Charles Huston, the youthful White House liaison to the interagency intelligence committee that oversaw the operations, the Huston Plan played a part in President Richard Nixon’s impeachment, providing evidence for his misuse of the FBI and other parts of the executive branch. Parts of the document have appeared previously, for instance in the records of the Senate Watergate Committee and the Church Committee. This is the first time the document has been released on its own and with this amount of text declassified.
Today’s posting also features more than two dozen additional documents from the FBI, CIA and other sources — as well as audio recordings from the Nixon Tapes — most of them obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and posted for the first time.
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Spying on Americans: New Release of the Infamous Huston Plan
By John Prados and Luke A. Nichter
The Trump administration’s attempt to squelch the memoir of former national security adviser John Bolton once more puts a spotlight on government secrecy. President Donald Trump’s claims to secrecy fell by the wayside, but these issues recur too often because legitimate secrecy is repeatedly manipulated for political advantage – to shield wrongdoing or embarrassment or to hide error. This is possible, in turn, because regulations on the proper handling of secrets are observed on the security side, but much more rarely when it comes to releasing records whose claim to secrecy is expired.
Today we have the example of a notorious secret from the days of the Nixon administration, a scheme for spying on American citizens known as the “Huston Plan” after its White House shepherd. Just being released as the result of a 2017 court order is a fresh version of the Huston Plan document. Remarkably enough, that court order is from the same federal district judge, Chief Judge (now Senior Judge) Royce C. Lamberth, who presided over William Barr and Donald Trump’s attempt to silence John Bolton.
As the Bolton case shows, these episodes have an intricate inner logic which is frequently very different from surface appeals to simple secrecy. The Huston Plan is a perfect illustration of that, sharpened by the fact that the actions recounted here figured in the impeachment of Richard M. Nixon, who resigned the presidency on August 8, 1974, about ten days after the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives passed the count of its indictment which was based upon the Huston Plan.
This Electronic Briefing Book will detail where the new version of the Huston Plan came from, the original story of the plan, the backstory of how it was actually manipulated by operating agencies acting against American dissidents, and the way the security agencies used “sources and methods” arguments rooted in conventional espionage practice in an attempt to shield their actions against Americans.
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Watergate is the term used to connote a whole array of so-called “dirty tricks” and political misdeeds during Richard Nixon’s presidency. It amounted to a full-blown constitutional crisis—intelligence gathering on political opponents, smear campaigns, an “enemies list,” illegal campaign funds, illegal use of the Internal Revenue Service to persecute political enemies, illegal wiretaps, and much more, with executive privilege used to shield the transgressions. Many of those actions were carried out by a unit right inside the White House, applying orders conveyed by presidential acolytes. Some of these persons were prosecuted after the collapse of the conspiracy. One of the present authors, Luke A. Nichter, noticed some years ago that many of the documents and other trial exhibits of Watergate figures remained secret or under seal long after the trials. Nichter had been working on the Nixon tapes, in which Watergate was a principal subject. In 2009 Nichter wrote to Judge Lamberth of the Federal Court for the District of Washington, who had been a colleague of Watergate judge John J. Sirica from 1987 to 1992, to ask why so many records remained sealed. A year later Nichter repeated his query to the Washington Historical Society, which had hosted a Watergate exhibition and forwarded the historian’s question to the judge.
In the summer of 2010 Chief Judge Lamberth, concerned with these gaps in the record himself, took up Nichter’s question and decided he could treat the historian’s letter as a petition to unseal Watergate court records, starting with material from the trial U.S. v. Liddy, et al. (G. Gordon Liddy was a leader of the White House “Plumbers” unit and later an intelligence chief for the Nixon re-election campaign. He was tried along with a number of the participants in the dirty tricks operation.) In November 2012 and July 2013 material from the Liddy trial documents was unsealed. The Justice Department, while seeking various extensions of time to respond to successive phases of the petition, cooperated in releasing records. On September 1, 2017 this led to the unsealing of the Huston Plan document, which since then has been under declassification review. It is now released to the public.
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As noted, the Huston Plan figured in the impeachment of Richard Nixon. The second point of the bill of particulars for Article II of the impeachment resolution says of Nixon, “He misused the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Secret Service, and other executive personnel, in violation or disregard of the constitutional rights of citizens.” Nixon was “directing or authorizing” agencies to conduct or continue electronic surveillance and other investigations unrelated to national security or other lawful functions, using the information unlawfully as well, and directing that records of FBI wiretaps be concealed.
To demonstrate these allegations, truncated versions of the Huston Plan (Document 1) have been placed in the public domain since Watergate. The Senate Watergate Committee, chaired by Senator Sam Ervin (D-SC) had one in 1973. A Senate committee on presidential campaign practices made a copy public. The Church Committee, which investigated the intelligence agencies in 1975, also released a version of the Huston Plan. The security agencies tried to influence just what pieces of the document were made available. We will investigate that later.
The version brought forward today is not the end of the line by any means. A lot of this document remains classified. If you subtract the frontmatter—cover, signatures, contents, a brief note—roughly 20 percent of the Huston Plan is still secret. By way of contrast, the newly released text amounts to perhaps 5 percent of the whole. In a major section that is now available, the ad hoc study group that prepared the Huston report discussed legal and other constraints on the means of intelligence collection which prevented complete coverage of dissidents. The consistent position taken, insofar as it is declassified, was that the restrictions were excessive and should be loosened. There is an exception in the form of objections from the FBI which appear in footnotes in the discussion of each means of collection, which we will come back to. Much of the deleted text concerns the means of intelligence collection, but so far as we can tell, the FBI footnotes are all there. The document is signed by the chiefs of the principal U.S. security agencies at the time—J. Edgar Hoover for the FBI, Richard Helms for the CIA, Admiral Noel Gayler for the National Security Agency, and General Donald V. Bennett for the Defense Intelligence Agency.
Dissidents themselves are the other major subject that has now been declassified. The report intended to cover the internal security threat in the United States. This included student protest groups, antiwar activists, the militant New Left (“New Left Terrorist Groups”), the so-called “Black Extremist Movement,” and such groups as the Communist Party of the United States, the Socialist Workers Party, and Puerto Rican Nationalist groups (“extremist” was added to that identification too). For each group the study assessed the adequacy of the intelligence coverage, using the collection means discussed in the other section.
At the top of the Nixon White House there was an intense focus on foreign powers’ alleged control of or influence over the political protest movement in America, and that was the other main thread of the ad hoc study group report. It discussed Soviet intelligence, Chinese communist intelligence, and Cuban intelligence. One odd aspect of this study is that it appears there was no equivalent focus on North Vietnamese intelligence, though this cannot be said with certainty since many deletions from this document center on foreign intelligence services, particularly the Soviet. Pro-Chinese dissidents feature in a number of the newly released passages, however.
While this report takes the form of an analysis, it has come down in history as the Huston plan because of the constant focus on measures to be taken to increase surveillance. For example (p. 6-7), the study group found that primary coverage of student groups came through “live informants,” that increased manpower would “facilitate more effective coverage,” and that electronic surveillance and mail covers could be “particularly effective” against “several key leaders involved in virtually all antiwar activities.” Against African-Americans—of interest to Black Lives Matter activists today—the security services were ready to employ racist imagery, such as the finding that the Black Panther Party (BPP) leadership “is composed in large part of criminally inclined, violence-prone individuals” (p. 9). The government analysts were satisfied with spying at the level of rank-and-file Black nationalists but observed “additional penetration of the national leadership of the BPP, especially at the Central Committee level, is needed” (p. 12). Security agencies wanted more on sources of funds and records, foreign travel, and plans of “unaffiliated black militants” (p. 13).
This kind of planning on the part of the United States government is obviously intrusive, arguably not legal on its face, and would be politically incendiary once the fact became known. Thus its inclusion in the Nixon impeachment proceedings. The obvious questions are what was happening and why.
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This document is known as the Huston Plan because a principal participant in its creation and the events that followed was a Nixon White House aide named Tom Charles Huston. A fledgling conservative from Indiana, Huston had been president of the Young Americans for Freedom organization, and had met Richard Nixon after endorsing him over other Republican politicians. He’d earned a law degree with honors at the University of Indiana and joined the Indiana bar in 1966. Huston volunteered for the Nixon presidential campaign and subsequently was brought into the White House, after two years in the Army, as a member of Nixon’s speechwriting staff. Huston started there, but in due course was given the title of “special assistant to the president” and began to receive delicate assignments. One, domestic security, took advantage of his Army intelligence experience, which had been with the Defense Intelligence Agency (though there Huston had worked on Soviet strategic forces). Huston also was charged with compiling an internal history of U.S.-North Vietnamese negotiations for a bombing halt in 1968, and then a more specific study of the role Republican socialite and fundraiser Anna Chennault had played in those events, which had helped Nixon’s election by preventing the Democratic administration from claiming success in opening talks to end the Vietnam war. In the course of those inquiries Tom Huston learned that Leslie Gelb, a former senior Pentagon official who had supervised the Pentagon Papers project, had gone to the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, with certain papers related to those events.
In his work on the inside story of the 1968 election, or on the beat in the move against the protesters, Huston became friendly with FBI Deputy Director William C. Sullivan, the Bureau official who ran its Internal Security Division. The main offices in Sullivan’s unit were those covering the New Left antiwar opposition and the Black Liberation movement. This part of the FBI took a hardline approach to dissidents. Huston favored that himself. In June 1969 he asked the CIA for data on foreign meddling, adding that the term should be construed in the broadest way possible. Robert E. Cushman, the deputy director for central intelligence, answered there was nothing to sustain such charges. Given orders to write a report on the foreign role in the antiwar movement, Huston depended on FBI briefings and prevailed upon Director Hoover to provide written versions of that information. Huston’s paper found no significant foreign involvement, based on what information U.S. agencies had at the time. One way to push a hardline agenda was to question the quality of the intelligence. Tom Huston and Bill Sullivan—separated in age by many years (Huston was 28 at the time, Sullivan 58)—became allies. J. Edgar Hoover, who also believed in the foreign threat, had confidence in Sullivan.
Richard Nixon, espousing law and order during his 1968 campaign, grew steadily more antagonistic toward protesters—and 1969 was a year of strong antiwar protests, ones that actually derailed a Nixon attempt to coerce Hanoi into concessions in peace talks. This president also worried that foreign powers stood behind the protests. In addition, he sought to centralize the levers of power, gathering them into the White House, and was partial to schemes providing for a central presidential role in various fields, internal security not least among them.
In early 1970 a rift developed between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency which threatened to dry up the supply of intelligence and muddy the bureaucratic waters (as well as furnishing an excuse for White House involvement). Relations were already delicate—shortly before the “Days of Rage” protest mounted by the Weatherman faction in October 1969, the CIA had asked for wiretaps on associated persons and the Bureau had declined. Weatherman, of course, had been a prime target for the security services. Then an FBI informant supplied CIA with information on one of its own contacts, a Denver academic named Thomas Riha, which infuriated Director Hoover, who demanded to know who had squealed. CIA Director Helms refused to provide that information. Hoover retaliated by breaking the longstanding liaison relationship between the agencies, withdrawing his representative at the CIA, ordering his Denver office to have nothing to do with CIA whatever, and stipulating that all future contact with the spy agency be in writing. By May, to show the FBI was being evenhanded, it had broken off liaison with every agency except the White House. 
While these things took place behind the scenes, in the open there were more protests. In March 1970 Weatherman adherents making a bomb accidentally blew up a townhouse in Greenwich Village, New York. Nixon called them “young criminals posturing as romantic revolutionaries.” Nixon’s obsession with dissent had become palpable. An administration official quoted the president as complaining the intelligence system was incapable of tracking the activities of dissidents. In March Huston was designated White House point man on spy efforts. Only weeks later Nixon ordered an invasion of Cambodia to extend the Vietnam war, and the country exploded in a firestorm of protests. At Kent State and Jackson State universities, protesters were killed by National Guard troops or police. Nixon made a gesture to protesters, visiting some in the dark of night at the Lincoln Memorial, but he would not be swayed. After another White House effort to tie down the sources of protester funding, Tom Huston suggested to presidential chief of staff H. R. Haldeman that Nixon should meet with the heads of the intelligence agencies as a first move in a drive to reinvigorate intelligence collection on Americans. Huston told Haldeman they needed to overcome the agencies’ refusal to talk with each other by gathering them into a committee. The president’s purpose in meeting with the directors should be to order the creation of such a unit, with an initial look at the government’s toolkit for surveillance.
The meeting took place on June 5, 1970. With typical Nixonian indirection, Tom Huston recalled, the president hardly spoke of the protests. He mentioned meeting the leader of Venezuela, complained of African-Americans exporting revolution to the Caribbean, talked about Justice Department anti-bombing legislation sent to Congress, and more. He did ask both Hoover and Helms if they had any “problems” (they replied no), said he wanted to form a committee with Hoover at its head, and a working group led by Bill Sullivan (the previous day Huston had advised Nixon to appoint Sullivan). Afterwards Tom Charles Huston was designated the White House member of both groups. Haldeman pronounced this an “historic meeting,” one “generated by [the president’s] complete dissatisfaction with the results of intelligence gathering.”
Nixon’s meeting took place on a Friday. Director Hoover immediately told Bill Sullivan to invite the agency chiefs to his office the next Monday and set the initial session of the working group for Tuesday. James Angleton, the CIA’s notorious molehunter, would tell Senate investigators that Huston informed the working group his relationship to them on intelligence would be the same as Henry Kissinger’s on foreign policy. By the next day Sullivan had prepared an overview memo for Hoover with talking points for the meeting (Document 2). The notes termed the protests “massive mob rule in action” and complained of racial unrest. They presented as “plain fact” an assertion that “there currently are thousands of individuals inside this country who want to see our form of government destroyed” who “are reaching out seeking support from this nation’s enemies abroad.”
This beginning was very different from the White House internal knowledge Tom Huston says he conveyed to his superiors. Huston nevertheless supported Hoover’s practical program—when attendees at the working group meeting behaved as if Nixon had simply been giving them a pep talk, Huston insisted they had a concrete assignment to compile a study, and he presented a draft of working group ground rules that became its basic guidance (Document 3). Under that, the White House member (Huston) would set the scope and direction of the review. For CIA, Richard Helms recommended there be a “Bigot List” specifying those individuals who would be permitted to know of the existence or contents of the report. At a second Langley working session—all the working meetings took place at CIA headquarters—Huston instructed that everywhere the report made a recommendation it should have a discussion of pros and cons and space for the president to indicate approval or disapproval. He also found the agencies’ threat analyses inadequate. Huston supported the idea of a permanent committee to continue supervising the intelligence effort against Americans. At the third session, on June 17, a draft paper began emerging. Here Huston made clear that discussions of constraints on intelligence collection in the paper had to be joint ones—no agency would be allowed to make separate recommendations, conclusions, opinions, or observations (Document 4).
On June 20 William C. Sullivan sent Clyde Tolson, Hoover’s deputy, a copy of the initial draft of the special report with his own commentary (Document 5). The FBI’s position is somewhat ambiguous. Sullivan and Hoover were both against dissenters, and the White House plan promised to open up new avenues for action. But despite Tom Huston’s importunings, Sullivan advised the FBI should object, in writing in the document or by Hoover verbally to Nixon. Sullivan also opposed the permanent committee Huston had proposed unless it were limited to periodic meetings to improve operational coordination. Sullivan recommended Hoover and Tolson agree to FBI making written objections in the special report. Hoover preferred a complete rewrite but Sullivan balked, according to the Church Committee case study, pointing out that the other intelligence directors had all already approved the draft special report. He repeated the suggestion for footnotes and Hoover agreed (Document 29).
The agency directors gathered in J. Edgar Hoover’s office on June 25 for a final review of the special report (Document 6). Each man was to sign the document. Those who expected the meeting to be a simple signing ceremony were surprised. Director Hoover staged an event where he coupled his own footnotes objecting to loosening surveillance restraints with the overall text. The FBI director read out loud, then asked each of the agency directors if they had objections to each of the proposed reductions in controls. “We couldn’t believe what we were hearing,” Bill Sullivan told a researcher. Richard Helms leaned back in his chair and winked at Huston. As a result, the meeting made it explicit that all the intelligence agencies except the FBI favored unleashing surveillance of Americans. To underline that implication, the special report was signed by all the agency chiefs.
By putting the FBI on record that loosening strictures on surveillance was objectionable, Hoover made the special report radioactive. This may not have been what he intended but it was the effect just the same. (Sullivan recalled Hoover’s private remarks: “For years and years I have approved opening mail and other similar operations, but no. It is becoming more and more dangerous and we are apt to get caught. I am not opposed to doing this . . . . providing someone higher than myself approves of it” [Document 29].) Richard Nixon, who, to judge from Huston’s instructions, expected to be able to check off approval boxes on the document, suddenly found himself in a very different position. If Nixon signed he would be a president approving intrusive measures over the objections of his own FBI. “There was risk associated with” the plan, Huston recalled later, “and it would seem appropriate to me that the president understand there was risk. Hoover understood that, and Hoover was more sensitive to the . . . degree of risk than any of the other people . . . including certainly me.” The White House staffer thought the president should soothe Hoover by bringing him in for a personal meeting. Nixon never did that. ustonHHHH
In the end, there would be no formal presidential approval. Instead, on July 14, Haldeman directed a memorandum to Huston stating that the president had accepted the proposals (Document 7). As a result Huston prepared a directive, sent on July 23, which ordered restrictions terminated on mail opening, break-ins (termed “black bag jobs”), and loosened constraints (details redacted) on forms of electronic surveillance. The directive ordered increased intelligence gathering on college campuses, and restrictions removed which hampered that. Agencies were to submit budget requests to cover the work, and a committee would be formed to oversee the spying (Document 8).
This Huston Plan program had a life of just five days. Hoover, furious that his objections had been overridden, sent a memorandum to Attorney General John N. Mitchell stressing the controversial nature of the intrusive methods (Document 9). The attorney general, it turned out, had never been informed of the Huston Plan. Mitchell met with Nixon the same day and with the intelligence agency chiefs the next. Huston describes Mitchell’s talk like this: “You can’t do this . . . Hoover’s got all the cards. I mean, all he has to do is leak this stuff and you’re in a totally untenable position.” CIA Director Helms recorded that Mitchell told them to stand down (Document 10). A CIA routing slip from Helms dated July 28 indicates he sent back the Huston directive that day. Other agency directors did the same.
Because no directive or other document officially rescinded the July 23 directive, doubts arose afterwards as to the actual status of the Huston Plan. Tom Huston certainly knew it was over. Huston began “my 30-day crusade with Haldeman to try and get the president to not back down.” In a different oral history he recounts, “I bombarded Haldeman with several utterly tasteless and inappropriate memoranda that reflected poorly on me, and—but reflected accurately, I guess, my anger and frustration.” In one paper, anticipating the chief of staff would see the FBI director shortly, Huston wrote that “at some point Hoover has to be told who is president” (Document 11). In another gambit, Huston recommended Haldeman enlist Attorney General Mitchell to convince Hoover (Document 12). None of these schemes worked.
Later on, amid the Watergate scandal, when John Dean’s copy of the Huston Plan reached congressional investigators—(in the fall of 1970 Dean followed Tom Huston as point man on the political surveillance issue, although Huston kept doing basic intelligence liaison work)—the fate of the Huston Plan became even more important. White House lawyer J. Fred Buzhardt looked into what had happened. His findings were important (audio and text for Documents 20, 21, 22). Officials at the Defense Intelligence Agency believed the plan had been terminated, but could not find any record of it. At the National Security Agency, which Buzhardt cited as the unit most aggressive about moving ahead, officials agreed the plan had been rescinded, but that they had similar types of action underway. Mr. Nixon remembered that the activity had been “knocked off” after two or three months, and that Tom Huston had volunteered the same recollection. In a May 17, 1973 conversation (Document 22) Buzhardt noted the options in the special report had been unanimous: “No excepts. It was unanimous when it came to you.” But the lawyer also said there were FBI footnotes on one copy of the plan, adding that they did not have the footnotes, then that the footnotes were exceptions (he did not say how this affected his declaration that the report had been unanimous).
The president’s tone in all of this is apparent from the audio. Mr. Nixon hinted at his own knowledge where he recalled having approved the Huston Plan, and calling it off after a few months, supposedly because it was not working. But Nixon often probed, trying to identify the boundaries of others’ knowledge or the confidence that might be placed in them. On another occasion Nixon’s memory had been much sharper: June 18, 1971. In an incident that became notorious, Nixon ordered chief of staff Haldeman to bomb and break into the Brookings Institution to obtain the documents Les Gelb had allegedly left there. “Bob, now you remember Huston’s plan?” Nixon had said. “Implement it!” The point here has nothing to do with whether Richard Nixon actually wanted to break into Brookings, it is that Nixon had a precise recollection of the Huston Plan.
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There is another dimension to the Huston Plan. What happened to it? In the Nixon exchanges with Fred Buzhardt, the president took pains to establish that nothing had been done on the basis of the Huston Plan. Buzhardt reported the NSA had conducted some electronic surveillance and both men thought that could be defended. Similarly, when the plan was under scrutiny by the Church Committee, the CIA prepared a summary paper which concluded, “No further action to implement the Huston letter subsequent to the July 27, 1970, letter to the Attorney General was instituted by the Intelligence Community.”
That stands in contrast to President Nixon’s rumination quoted above, and to a stream of other developments. In 1967 the FBI had instituted a rule that undercover informants recruited to report on campus disorders must be at least 21 years old. On September 2, 1970 a new directive lowered the age for African-Americans to just 18 (Document 13). Additional instructions were sent regarding “Key Black Extremists” (Document 16) detailing what information should be incorporated into their files, ranging from photographs to finances to handwriting samples. Only in the spring of 1971 did the FBI take steps to stop its “Rabble Rouser Index” (Document 19), but even then information was refiled elsewhere. For years the FBI had had a COINTELPRO surveillance program aimed at leftists, anti-nuclear activists, civil rights protesters and others. It was not halted.
Director Hoover had prohibited “black bag” jobs. There were pressures to reinstitute them, including from the CIA. Telephone taps and electronic surveillance were the government’s primary source of intelligence on the protesters. Under pressure from CIA and NSA, Attorney General Mitchell returned to the question at the end of March 1971, taking up one of the (still deleted) recommendations of Huston’s plan. Talking points prepared for Director Hoover show that FBI personnel anticipated this discussion, arming him with a list of wiretaps on Black Nationalists and other figures (Document 17). Helms also pressed on secret mail opening programs, as Hoover noted subsequently (Document 18). CIA had that underway on a constant basis in its Project HT/LINGUAL. In the wake of the Mitchell meeting, CIA Director Helms sent a letter to the attorney general formally requesting the FBI freeze on wiretaps be reversed. John Mitchell did that on April 24, 1971. Two days later CIA delivered technical equipment for a series of “devices” that were installed between then and May 18. This surveillance continued until February 1972, when Hoover was scheduled to testify before Congress. Surveillance halted to preclude Hoover from any admission that Americans were being watched at CIA instigation (see the CIA memo that is part of Document 23). Coverage then resumed for several months starting in December 1972.
Adding to the surveillance, the National Security Agency continued two projects throughout this period: SHAMROCK, aimed at private cable traffic; and MINARET, surveilling watch-listed Americans. Indeed, Admiral Gayler’s interest in the whole field of domestic activities stemmed from these projects. The CIA assisted. Under its Project LP/MEDLEY, the codebreakers received office space and cover in lower Manhattan from the summer of 1966 until that of 1973.
Meanwhile, the main CIA program aimed at dissenters, Project CHAOS, continued the entire time. In fact, the CIA’s CHAOS boss, Richard Ober, became the agency’s representative on the Interagency Evaluation Committee (IEC). Created in December 1970 based on Huston Plan recommendations, the IEC formed a key part of the structure the plan had envisioned. The group met seven times between then and July 20, 1971. Later, in their May 1973 conversations, Nixon and Buzhardt went to some lengths to establish whether that committee had done anything beyond coordinate. Chaired by Robert Mardian, a senior aide to Mitchell, who firmly maintained the IEC had done little of consequence (Document 21), the precise activities of the group were never very clear. It was abolished only in July 1973.
In summary, Huston Plan or no, the United States government carried out very robust spy programs aimed at Americans during this period, complete with coordinating committees. How in practice that differed from the Huston “Plan” is not evident. The door is open to an argument that agency heads pushing the Nixon administration for the Huston Plan or something like it simply sought to build justifications for what they were doing. As far back as 1978 historian Athan Theoharis argued that “throughout, the intelligence community’s underlying objective had been to exploit Nixon’s and the White House’s concern about New Left political activism and not to inform the president.” None of the agency surveillance programs mentioned was curtailed when the Huston Plan failed to gain approval. Indeed, the FBI, even with Director Hoover’s apparent opposition, during the 1970-1971 period loosened restrictions on recruiting informants, widened the scope of watch lists, and reinstituted its own mail opening program. Intelligence directors like Helms and Gayler kept up pressure for their own operations, too. As Tom Huston put it, “All these things that were in the plan were all on every intelligence agencies’ [sic] desirable list, you know, and had been for a very long time.”
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Why was the president trying to establish that nothing had been done on the basis of the Huston Plan? This moment was the inflection point for Watergate. On March 21, 1973, John Dean, accompanied by Bob Haldeman and domestic adviser John D. Ehrlichman, had his “cancer on the presidency” talk with Richard Nixon. At the end of April the president asked Haldeman and Ehrlichman to resign and fired John Dean. The latter became a witness for hearings before the Senate. Before being fired, Dean removed documents from his office and put them in a safe deposit box. He announced on May 4 that the federal district court would be asked to take custody of them. The papers included the Huston Plan (Document 1). On May 14, Judge John J. Sirica issued an order forwarding the document to Congress. Several congressional committees were suddenly interested. At this moment controversy boiled over into political crisis. Developments began piling atop one another.
The context of May 16 and 17, 1973, where we are presenting several taped presidential conversations (Documents 20, 21, 22) is this: on February 9—before he broke with President Nixon—John Dean had phoned the CIA director to try and get the agency to invoke its security interests and persuade the Justice Department to return a packet of materials that showed CIA had helped the White House Plumbers unit to perform a “black bag job” on the office of psychiatrist Daniel Ellsberg, leaker of the Pentagon Papers. Ellsberg was then on trial for the leak. Before responding to the White House, on February 16 the CIA asked the FBI to terminate all its wiretaps. A week later Langley refused to participate in the maneuver over the Ellsberg burglary. Watergate burglar James W. McCord, Jr., a former CIA officer, switched sides, breaching walls of confidentiality that helped protect the intelligence agency—which had employed virtually all of the Watergate burglars in its covert operations against Cuba. Another former CIA officer, E. Howard Hunt, revealed that he had received CIA help for the Ellsberg break-in. A new chief of the FBI appeared for confirmation hearings, which brought out more details of Bureau reporting to the White House on Watergate. Congress approved appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate. At Ellsberg’s trial, it developed the judge had been offered a federal appointment. Then it turned out Ellsberg had been wiretapped and the tap records were missing. The next day the case was dismissed. There had already been a plethora of reports of the CIA and FBI involved in dirty tricks as part of Watergate, plus more of Nixon and his aides trying to pull the agencies in as cover. Senator John L. McClellan (D-AK) announced his subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services committee might investigate the CIA role in Watergate.
The Watergate hearings and the deep investigation into those matters were set to begin on May 17. When Nixon and Buzhardt—who had been at the White House for barely a week—looked into the Huston Plan, the political heat had built to high intensity. Buzhardt posed formal questions to the FBI and CIA. Their replies (Document 23) were practice sessions for what quickly became a series of inquiries. On May 15, the day after the Sirica court came into possession of the Huston Plan, top officials of the intelligence agencies gathered at the Pentagon to consider their strategy (Document 24). Edward S. Miller of the FBI, with aides, then went to see Senator Stuart Symington (D-MO), of the Armed Services committee, to see if they could get that body to intercede with Sam Ervin’s Watergate investigators. At that meeting and a follow-up session on May 16, the officials argued the Huston Plan document had to be protected for national security reasons. Surreptitious entry, mail opening, and wiretaps were the key interests. According to the FBI record (Document 24), CIA and NSA were in virtually complete agreement on the interests to be protected. Black bag jobs were qualified as being against embassies, with foreign intelligence, not domestic spying emphasized. After recounting exchanges in some detail, and summarizing the papers involved, the FBI commentator noted that “in today’s climate of political hysteria and recrimination,” the documents could support the thesis that the Huston study group had been “a link in a chain of events in which White House personnel were conspiring to involve the intelligence community in acts of political espionage and political sabotage”—in fact: “efforts to create a Hitlerian regime or a Nixon oligarchy.”
The government officials then had to contend directly with Senator Ervin and the Watergate committee. Ervin agreed to protect the confidentiality of the documents, while acting Attorney General William D. Ruckelshaus offered to brief the senators on the material (Documents 25 and 26). Again the government sought to emphasize foreign intelligence as the reason why the information needed protection. Within days news of the Huston Plan leaked, appearing in the Washington Post on May 22. As a result, President Nixon made a statement formally revealing the Huston Plan, based on the Buzhardt inquiries. After laying out parts of the story recounted here, Nixon asserted, “Because the approval was withdrawn before it had been implemented, the net result was that the plan for expanded intelligence activities never went into effect.” Nixon, too, emphasized foreign intelligence considerations as the reason the document had to remain secret.
Those assurances endured less than a year. In March 1974 the Chicago Tribune learned of the orders to recruit African-American FBI informants as young as 18. The orders had been issued in September 1970 (Document 13), after the Huston Plan had supposedly been retracted. Now, on March 10, 1974, an accurate summary was in the newspapers. FBI internal inquiries traced the leak to the intrusion into the Bureau office in Media, Pennsylvania, in March 1971.
Equally thorny for the authorities would be the emergence of an actual impeachment inquiry aimed at Nixon. An FBI legal analysis of March 25, 1974 (Document 27), identified the Huston Plan as a document that would be of interest to the “Rodino Committee,” the House Judiciary Committee led by New York Democrat Peter Rodino.
On May 7, Buzhardt appeared before the Ervin Committee and testified that the FBI had carried out surreptitious entries during the interval since January 1969 (Document 28). Again the FBI’s annoyance allegedly centered on foreign intelligence considerations.
Near the end of 1974, revelations of domestic spying led directly to investigations of the intelligence agencies. Special committees of the Senate and House, and a presidential commission, all looked into spy activities. The Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, better known as the Church Committee, for Idaho Democrat Senator Frank Church, made the most detailed inquiry into the Huston Plan. Loch A. Johnson was the investigator on this. He followed the story from South Carolina to Boston, wherever it led. Admiral Gayler “seemed about as familiar with the Huston Plan as he might have been with . . . commodity and tariff regulations.” His deputy, Louis Tordella, perceived Hoover as a fighter ace terrified of being shot down. Johnson got the impression Tordella saw the White House interest as a heaven-sent opportunity. General Bennett had wanted to keep the military out of domestic activities, he told Johnson, and had only signed the special report because he thought it had presented a range of options. Huston had extracted only the most extreme options. Richard Helms had sat there and professed to recall nothing—except his duel with J. Edgar Hoover. James Angleton, the CIA’s master counterspy would be the witness for CIA when Church held a hearing with him on September 24, 1975. Huston had testified the previous day. Loch Johnson was impressed by Huston’s apparent remorse and stunned at the willingness of the security agencies to break the law. The staff report he wrote on the Huston project reflected those concerns. The proceedings confirmed Senator Church’s opinion that the CIA acted as a rogue elephant.
This review shows that authorities were quick to represent foreign intelligence as a rationale for preserving the secrecy of the Huston Plan. During this period the 43-page document appeared in expurgated form from a congressional committee looking at election campaigning, and again from the Church committee investigating intelligence abuses. Both times the committees followed executive branch advice on deletions. Five decades later the declassification authorities working on this newly released version of the document have repeated the exercise, using the tropes and thinking of the middle 1970s to guide a 21st century declassification. The Soviet Union no longer exists. China is a vastly different place from what it was then. The “sources and methods” argument that is being used as a rationale is also specious—wiretapping and communications interception are intelligence disciplines, not specific instrumentalities which require protection. And the real value protected here is the discussion of intrusive methods being employed against American citizens.
One more point should be made on opening records. The records of the Church Committee were also protected, on the advice of executive branch officials, on national security grounds. Those records would shed considerable light on the Huston Plan and numerous other matters, but Congress has made no move to open them. It’s time to finish that story too.
Read the documents
“Special Report, Interagency Committee on Intelligence (Ad Hoc)” – aka Huston Plan – Report for the President, June 25, 1970
Source: Unsealed as a result of In Re: Petition of Luke Nichter (D.D.C. Misc. No. 17-01263 RCL)
The Huston Plan proposed joint intelligence sharing and operations including electronic and physical surveillance, black bag jobs including break-ins and surreptitious entries, and the monitoring of domestic dissident groups. It was the final work product of the Interagency Committee on Intelligence (ICI), composed of J. Edgar Hoover (Chair, FBI), Richard Helms (CIA), William Bennett (DIA), and Noel Gayler (NSA). Its origins went back to 1967, when the White House and intelligence community began to grapple with the need to better understand an increase in civil unrest, urban rioting, antiwar activity, and emerging foreign threats. While a misnomer, over time it became known as the Huston Plan due to the fact that Tom Charles Huston was the Nixon White House staff member assigned as liaison to the committee. Portions originally appeared in a volume published by the Church Committee, Hearings: Intelligence Activities and the Rights of Americans, Volume II (GPO, 1976). However, this is the first time the Huston Plan has been publicly released as a standalone document.
FBI Memorandum, William Sullivan to C.D. DeLoach, “Interagency Intelligence Committee…,” June 6, 1970
Source: FBI FOIA
Following an Oval Office meeting between Nixon and intelligence community leaders on June 5, 1970, which established the Interagency Committee on Intelligence, a follow-up meeting was scheduled for June 8 in Hoover’s office. FBI Deputy Director Sullivan attached suggested talking points, including a proposal to establish a working subcommittee “for the purpose of preparing a comprehensive study to be completed to the President on July 1, 1970.”
FBI Memorandum, William Sullivan to C.D. DeLoach, “Interagency Committee on Intelligence … Meeting of the Working Subcommittee June 9, 1970,” June 10, 1970
Source: FBI FOIA
The first subcommittee meeting of the ICI took place on June 9. Huston noted in his presentation to intelligence community leaders that Nixon “was not interested in being told what the current problem is, but rather what the future problems will be and what must be done to counter them.” The working group adopted a procedures paper advanced by Huston and attached here. They agreed to meet again on June 12 to discuss “all restraints restricting intelligence collection efforts across the board.”
FBI Memorandum, William Sullivan to C.D. DeLoach, “Interagency Committee on Intelligence … Meeting of the Working Subcommittee June 18, 1970,” June 19, 1970
Source: FBI FOIA
Sullivan summarized the meetings to date of the subcommittee, noting that work on the first draft of what would become known as the Huston Plan was taking place. He warned that “difficult and serious issues are bound to come up” given the different approaches of intelligence community leaders to “such a complex area as intelligence operations.” He cited Noel Gayler of NSA as being particularly forceful and perhaps even “a moving force behind the creation of this committee.”
FBI Memorandum, William Sullivan to Clyde Tolson, “Interagency Committee on Intelligence …,” June 20, 1970
Source: FBI FOIA
Sullivan reported that a draft of the Huston Plan was completed. The FBI was not in agreement with some of the proposals by other intelligence community leaders regarding the relaxation of restraints. Sullivan suggested options for Hoover to express these concerns at the next meeting of the ICI, scheduled for June 25.
FBI Memorandum, William Sullivan to Clyde Tolson, “Interagency Committee on Intelligence (Ad Hoc) …,” June 26, 1970
Source: FBI FOIA
Sullivan summarized the final meeting of the ICI held on June 25 in J. Edgar Hoover’s office. Chaired by Hoover, also in attendance were Helms, Bennett, Gayler, Huston, and FBI officials C.D. Brennan and Sullivan. After thanking the members of the committee, Hoover gave them each a copy of the completed Huston Plan “and carefully covered in a concise manner all of the items dealt with in the report.” All committee members expressed their support by signing their names on the cover page. Hoover submitted a copy to Nixon with a report that his committee had completed its work.
White House Memorandum, H.R. Haldeman to Tom Charles Huston, “Domestic Intelligence Review,” July 14, 1970
Source: Church Committee, v. II, Exhibit 3
Rather than having Nixon place his initials next to the desired implementation options contained at the end of the Huston Plan, Haldeman instead simply informed Huston that he was authorized to prepare formal implementation memoranda for intelligence community leaders.
White House Memorandum, Tom Charles Huston to Richard Helms, “Domestic Intelligence,” July 23, 1970
Source: Church Committee, v. II, Exhibit 4
Huston reported that Nixon had reviewed the recommendations contained in the Huston Plan and ordered the following elements of it to be implemented – electronic surveillance, surreptitious entries, and domestic intelligence operations.
FBI Memorandum, J. Edgar Hoover to John Mitchell, “Interagency Committee on Intelligence,” July 27, 1970
Source: Church Committee, v. II, Exhibit 40
Hoover shared his concerns with the attorney general regarding a letter from Huston regarding implementation of the Huston Plan, similar to the letter Helms received on July 23 (Document 8). Since Mitchell had not been personally involved in the meetings that led to the creation of the Huston Plan, Hoover provided a summary of relevant activities to date and what, specifically, Hoover objected to.
CIA Memorandum, Richard Helms for the Record, “Discussion with Attorney General Mitchell on Domestic Intelligence,” July 28, 1970
Source: Church Committee, v. II, Exhibit 20
Helms summarized the meeting of the intelligence agency heads the day before with John Mitchell. The latter had learned only that morning about the Huston Plan, and did not know the ICI had been established in early June to make recommendations with respect to domestic intelligence. Mitchell asked Hoover to “sit tight” until he had the opportunity to discuss the matter with Nixon. Helms suggested that Mitchell talk to recently retired FBI Special Agent Sam Papich, who had been liaison with the CIA before Hoover severed the relationship.
White House Memorandum, Tom Charles Huston to H.R. Haldeman, “Domestic Intelligence,” August 5, 1970
Source: Church Committee, v. II, Exhibit 22
Huston expressed concerns that Hoover continued to object to implementation of the Huston Plan even after chairing the committee that created it and signing off on its recommendations. In anticipation of a forthcoming meeting between Haldeman, Mitchell, and Hoover, Huston offered suggestions for how to counter the points Hoover was likely to make.
White House Memorandum, Tom Charles Huston to H.R. Haldeman, “Domestic Intelligence Review,” August 7, 1970
Source: Church Committee, v. II, Exhibit 23
Huston informed Haldeman that Hoover had left for a three-week vacation in California. If the delay in resolving his objections to implementing the Huston Plan continued, the enhanced surveillance capabilities contained in it would be unavailable for the coming academic year. sharpening the prediction that campus unrest would yet again impact many universities.
FBI Memorandum, Mark Felt to Clyde Tolson, “Security Informants; Racial Informants,” September 2, 1970
Source: FBI FOIA and Church Committee, v. II, Exhibit 44, pp. 330-333
Felt recommended restoring the age of “security and racial informants among students” to 18 in order to counter New Left and Black Panther campus recruiting drives. To wait until age 21 would mean most students would be nearing the end of their education. Felt argued that the proposal to lower the voting age to 18 gave additional justification for his proposal.
White House Memorandum, John Dean to John Mitchell, September 18, 1970
Source: Church Committee, v. II, Exhibit 24
When John Dean became counsel to the president in July 1970, among the duties he assumed was implementation of the Huston Plan. Here, he recommends a number of steps to be completed in order to establish an “interagency intelligence unit for both operational and evaluation purposes.”
FBI Memorandum, to Clyde Tolson, “The Executives Conference,” October 29, 1970
Source: Church Committee, v. II, Exhibit 41
FBI leaders met on October 29 to discuss “intensification of certain security-type investigations.” Such investigations included “campus disorders involving black students,” Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and New Left organizations. Hoover agreed with the recommendations to instruct field offices “to expand our security investigative coverage of extremist elements.”
FBI Memorandum, G.C. Moore to C.D. Brennan, “Key Black Extremist Program; Racial Matters,” December 22, 1970
Source: Church Committee, v. II, Exhibit 46
Moore recommended that guidance be sent to all FBI field offices to “intensify our coverage on certain black extremists” including especially “black extremists who are either key leaders or activists and are particularly extreme, agitative, anti-Government, and vocal in their calls for terrorism and violence.”
FBI Memorandum, W.R. Wannall to C.D. Brennan, “Director’s Meeting 3/31/71 with Attorney General , Mr. Richard Helms and Admiral Noel Gaylor,” March 25, 1971
Source: Church Committee, v. II, Exhibit 30
Following Attorney General John Mitchell’s request to meet with Hoover, Helms, and Gayler, Wannell speculated that the subject to be discussed will have to do with the monitoring of “criminal subversives” such as the Weathermen, Black Panthers, and other “radical militants.” He provides talking points and attaches a list of those whom the FBI has wiretapped.
FBI Memorandum, J. Edgar Hoover, “Memorandum for the Files,” April 12, 1971
Source: Church Committee, v. II, Exhibit 31
On March 29, Hoover met with Mitchell, Helms, and Gayler. This is the encounter anticipated in Document 17. During it the expansion of domestic and foreign intelligence surveillance capabilities was discussed. Hoover stated he did not want the FBI to be involved in some of the proposed expansions, to which Mitchell said he would ask Helms for an “in-depth examination” of what he proposed before making a final determination.
Special Agent in Charge (SAC) Letter, April 27, 1971, (including attachments about terminating the "Rabble Rouser Index" signed by J. Edgar Hoover)"
Source: FBI FOIA
In the wake of growing civil unrest, urban rioting, and antiwar activity, the FBI established a “Rabble Rouser Index” on August 4, 1967. The purpose was to maintain a system for tracking the “actions and speeches” as well as identifying data and background information of individuals known to foment unrest, especially those who traveled regularly. Hoover modified these guidelines on November 28, 1967, to also include “black nationalists, white supremacists, Puerto Rican nationalists, anti-Vietnam demonstration and leaders and other extremists.” In 1968, the Rabble Rouser Index was renamed the Agitator Index, and the entire system was dismantled in the wake of the Huston Plan on April 27, 1971.
White House record, Oval Office conversation, Richard Nixon and J. Fred Buzhardt, March 16, 19731 – 5:39 p.m
Source: Richard Nixon Presidential Library and http://nixontapes.org
Less than a week on the job, one of the first priorities for Special White House Counsel for Watergate J. Fred Buzhardt was to piece together the origins of the Huston Plan. It was an urgent task, since former Counsel to the President John W. Dean had taken the White House copy with him after being fired along with H.R. “Bob” Haldeman and John Ehrlichman on April 30, depositing it in his safety deposit box in Alexandria, Virginia. After Dean successfully petitioned on May 14 to transfer it to Judge John Sirica, the Nixon White House assumed it would be only a matter of time until it ended up in the hands of Watergate investigators. Here, Buzhardt probed Nixon’s recollection of the steps that led to the creation of the Huston Plan and whether or not authorization to implement it was ever properly turned off. An earlier version of this transcript appeared in Douglas Brinkley and Luke A. Nichter, The Nixon Tapes: 1973 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015), pgs. 684-689.
White House Telephone conversation, J. Fred Buzhardt and Robert Mardian, May 16, 1973 – Unknown time between 4:57 p.m. and 9:33 p.m.
Source: Richard Nixon Presidential Library and http://nixontapes.org
Buzhardt got up to speed quickly in his new assignment by utilizing contacts in the intelligence community from his previous position as general counsel at the U.S. Department of Defense. After meeting with Nixon, Buzhardt called former Assistant Attorney General for Internal Security Robert Mardian to ask for his recollection of how the Huston Plan came together – and most importantly whether it ever became operational. An earlier version of this transcript appeared in Douglas Brinkley and Luke A. Nichter, The Nixon Tapes: 1973 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015), pgs. 680-684.
White House record, Oval Office conversation, Richard Nixon and J. Fred Buzhardt, May 17, 1973 – 8:44 a.m.
Source: Richard Nixon Presidential Library and http://nixontapes.org
After a full day of fact-gathering, Nixon and Buzhardt shifted gears to establishing a White House position. They feared Dean might use the Huston Plan as a cover for past break-ins, including Watergate and the office of Dr. Lewis Fielding, Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, in order to show a broader conspiracy in his forthcoming testimony before the Ervin Committee. They agreed that the best position to take was a firm line that authorization to implement the Huston Plan had been retracted, even though NSA Deputy Director Louis Tordella had told Buzhardt he never received an order rescinding it. They scrambled to gather the recollections of the other intelligence community leaders and believed any limited implementation activities they might discover could be justified by established national security authority. An earlier version of this transcript appeared in Douglas Brinkley and Luke A. Nichter, The Nixon Tapes: 1973 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015), pgs. 689-699.
FBI Memorandum, William Ruckelshaus to Henry Petersen, “Interagency Committee on Intelligence (Ad Hoc),” May 18, 1973
Source: FBI FOIA, for CIA—Church Committee, v. II, Exhibit 61
Ruckelshaus asked for input on how to respond to Buzhardt’s request the day before to Ed Miller for FBI recollections of the ICI and the creation of the Huston Plan. Ruckelshaus determined that the Huston to Helms memorandum of July 23, 1970, was returned to the White House and there was nothing in the files after July 27. While the creation of the Huston Plan was clear, its supposed ending was murky. “It is stressed, however, that no documentary evidence exists to support the foregoing,” Ruckelshaus said.
FBI Memorandum, T.J. Smith to Ed Miller, “Interagency Committee on Intelligence (Ad Hoc),” May 22, 1973
Source: FBI FOIA
Smith provided background information on the Buzhardt request to Miller of May 17. When Dean petitioned Judge Sirica on May 14 to take custody of the copy of the Huston Plan that Dean had taken with him after being fired on April 30, intelligence community leaders met on May 15 to determine what Sirica had received. In addition to the Huston Plan, eight other documents were also transferred to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. With the press speculating about what the documents were, or how they could be related to Watergate and the Ervin Committee’s planned hearings, Smith provided a description of the documents in question and recommended prosecution of Dean for removing them from the White House.
U.S. Senate, Letter from San Ervin to William Ruckelshaus, May 22, 1973
Source: FBI FOIA
Sirica ordered that the documents Dean petitioned to deposit with his court on May 14, including the Huston Plan, be transferred to Counsel Sam Dash of Ervin’s Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities. Ervin sought FBI input on the records and specifically whether they were within the scope of the committee’s Watergate investigation as defined by S. Res. 60.
FBI Letter, William Ruckelshaus to Sam Ervin, June 5, 1973
Source: FBI FOIA
Ruckelshaus offered to brief Ervin and other members of his committee on the Huston Plan and other documents that Dean had turned over to Sirica on May 14.
FBI Memorandum, T.J. Smith to W.R. Wannall, “Associate Attorney General Designate; Rodino Committee Request for FBI Files,” March 25, 1974
Source: FBI FOIA
Smith warned that the coming investigations by the Rodino Committee had the possibility of getting into sensitive areas – including the Huston Plan.
FBI Memorandum, F.S. Putman, Jr. to W.R. Wannall, “Testimony by White House Counsel J. Frederick Buzhardt …,” October 2, 1974
Source: FBI FOIA
Putman summarized Buzhardt’s testimony on May 7 before the Ervin Committee. He noted that one of Hoover’s objections to the Huston Plan was its recommendation that surreptitious entries of embassies be used to obtain cryptographic materials and the fact that an increased number of police used to guard embassies made such operations riskier. Putnam clarified that the FBI had had no program of surreptitious entries since Hoover banned them in 1967, but that the FBI differentiated between entries and “trespass,” and that an occasional entry had taken place.
U.S. Senate, Church Committee, “National Security, Civil Liberties, and the Collection of Intelligence: A Report on the Huston Plan,” April 14, 1976
Source: Church Committee, Supplementary Detailed Staff Reports on Intelligence Activities and the Rights of Americans, Book III, April 14, 1976. GPO. 1976.
Originally published by the Church Committee as one of thirteen detailed staff reports, the report on the Huston Plan includes a description of events that led to its creation, legal issues and the competing interests of the agencies that contributed to it, and a detailed timeline of meetings and milestones that led to its recommendation and ultimate public disclosure during Watergate.