Original publish date: June 29, 2012 Reissue date: June 27, 2019
Last week, I recounted the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in and fall from grace of the Richard Nixon administration. There are not many voices left to clarify the events and personalities from that sad affair today. However, we are fortunate that two of the most important figures from Watergate have reunited to share their recollections of the scandal from a four decade perspective. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein recently co-authored an article for the Washington Post discussing the Nixon White House and Watergate affair as seen through the haze of history.
To me, the most interesting aspect of the Woodward / Bernstein article was the clarification of the role played in the events leading up to Watergate by a young Indianapolis attorney named Thomas Charles Huston. A man I have known for over 30-years myself. A complicated, enigmatic man to say the least. Over those years, I belonged to a political items collecting organization with Mr. Huston and even worked for him for a couple years in the early 1990s. I politely stayed off the subject of the Nixon White House years myself, but over that time picked up interesting tidbits from his relatives and friends. More on that later.
To Woodward and Bernstein, the most amazing developments from the years since the Watergate scandal are the continuing revelations further proving President Nixon’s involvement in the whole affair. It must be remembered that the duo of young reporters were shunned by their peers, dismissed by colleagues and threatened by the Washington establishment and the government itself. If anything, the tapes proved that Nixon was involved in schemes and secret plans potentially far worse than the hotel break-in that brought him down.
Woodward and Bernstein discovered that Nixon’s first war was against the anti-Vietnam War movement., which he considered subversive and detrimental to the war effort in Southeast Asia. In 1970, the President approved the top-secret “Huston Plan”, authorizing the CIA, the FBI and military intelligence units to identify any and all individuals identified as “domestic security threats”, in short, all those considered unfriendly to the Nixon administration.
Tom Huston (derisively called “Secret Agent X-5” behind his back by some White House officials), the White House aide who devised the plan, was a young right-wing lawyer who had been hired as an assistant to White House speech writer Patrick Buchanan. Huston graduated from Indiana University in 1966 and from 1967 to 1969, served as an officer in the United States Army assigned to the Defense Intelligence Agency and was associate counsel to the president of the United States from 1969-1971.His only qualifications for his White House position were political – he had been president of the Young Americans for Freedom, a conservative campus organization nationwide.
The Huston Plan was a 43-page report and outline of proposed security operations unknown by all but the most intimate Nixon White House insiders until it came to light during the 1973 Watergate hearings. The radical plan was born from President Richard Nixon’s desire to better coordinate domestic intelligence information gathering about ‘left-wing radicals’ and the anti-war movement in general. The plan was based on the assumption that, as Nixon said, “hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Americans—mostly under 30—are determined to destroy our society.” It called for intercepting mail, wire-tapping, covertly photographing and video-taping of administration “enemies” and lifting restrictions on “surreptitious entry”, in plainer speak, break-ins and “black bag jobs.” At one time it also called for the creation of camps in Western states where anti-war protesters would be detained. Huston’s Top Secret memo warns that parts of the plan are “clearly illegal.”
Despite Huston’s warning that his namesake plan was illegal, Nixon approves the plan, but rejects one element-that he personally authorize any break-ins. Per Huston plan guidelines, the Internal Revenue Service began to harass left-wing think tanks and charitable organizations such as the Brookings Institution and the Ford Foundation. Huston writes that “making sensitive political inquiries at the IRS is about as safe a procedure as trusting a whore,” since the administration has no “reliable political friends at IRS.” He adds, “We won’t be in control of the government and in a position of effective leverage until such time as we have complete and total control of the top three slots of the IRS.” Huston suggests breaking into the Brookings Institute to find “the classified material which they have stashed over there,” adding: “There are a number of ways we could handle this. There are risks in all of them, of course; but there are also risks in allowing a government-in-exile to grow increasingly arrogant and powerful as each day goes by.”
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover objected to the plan, not on ethics or principles, but because he considered those types of activities the FBI’s turf. One June 5, 1970, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover brought Huston into his office and explains that the “old ways” of unfettered wiretaps, political infiltration, and calculated break-ins and burglaries are “too dangerous,” to attempt today. Hoover says he will not share FBI intelligence with other agencies, and will not authorize any illegal activities without President Nixon’s personal, written approval. The next day, Nixon withdraws his support for the Huston plan. Although Nixon covertly personally implemented several of its provisions anyway including lowering the age of campus informants and expanding surveillance of American college students and interception of mail.
Placed in a White House safe, Huston’s blueprint became public in 1973 after Congress investigated the Watergate affair and learned that Nixon had ordered illegal monitoring of American citizens. Historians consider the Huston Plan as the impetus of what Attorney General Mitchell referred to as, “White House horrors” including the Plumbers Unit, the proposed fire-bombing of the Brookings Institution, the 1971 burglary of the office of the psychiatrist of Daniel Ellsberg, the creation of a White House enemies list, the use of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to punish those deemed to be enemies, and the Watergate affair itself.
Woodward and Bernstein are amazed at the psychotic ramblings still surfacing on the tapes as they are released a few at a time over the past few years. Huston’s name continues to surface on the tapes as well. On June 17, 1971, exactly one year before the Watergate break-in, Nixon met in the Oval Office with his chief of staff, Bob Haldeman and national security adviser Henry Kissinger to talk about former president Lyndon Johnson’s handling of the 1968 bombing halt in Vietnam. “You can blackmail Johnson on this stuff, and it might be worth doing,” Haldeman said, according to the tape of the meeting. “Yeah,” Kissinger said, “but Bob and I have been trying to put the damn thing together for three years.” They wanted the complete story of Johnson’s actions. “Huston swears to God there’s a file on it at Brookings,” Haldeman said. “Bob,” Nixon said, “now you remember Huston’s plan? Implement it. . . . I mean, I want it implemented on a thievery basis. G-d damn it, get in and get those files. Blow the safe and get it.” Nixon would not let the matter drop. Thirteen days later, according to another taped discussion with Haldeman and Kissinger, the president said: “Break in and take it out. You understand?” The next morning, Nixon said: “Bob, get on the Brookings thing right away. I’ve got to get that safe cracked over there.” And later that morning, he persisted, “Who’s gonna break in the Brookings Institution?” Luckily for history’s sake, the break-in was never carried out, at least not that we are aware of.
W. Mark Felt, the deputy director of the FBI and the man who would later be identified as Woodward’s “Deep Throat” source, later called Huston “a kind of White House gauleiter over the intelligence community.” The definition of “gauleiter” is, according to Webster’s Dictionary, “the leader or chief official of a political district under Nazi control.” Huston developed a staggeringly long “enemies list” that included, in historian Richard Reeves’s words, “most every man or woman who had ever said a discouraging word about Nixon.” As details of the Huston plan surfaced after Watergate, with its blatant contempt for civil liberties and disdain for the rule of Constitutional law, many historians and journalists identified it with the spirit and mood thought to pervade the Nixon White House.
During the 1977 David Frost Nixon interviews, former Watergate prosecutor Philip Lacovara told Frost’s aide James Reston Jr. that it was surprising Huston was not taken out and shot. Reston would later write: “Not only was Tom Charles Huston not taken out and shot, the plan was calmly considered and signed by Nixon, and was in force for a week, until J. Edgar Hoover objected on territorial rather than philosophical grounds.”
For his part, Mr. Huston has rarely spoke publicly of the plan that bears his name. In late 1973, Huston talked about Watergate and civil liberties with a small audience during a meeting of the Philadelphia chapter of the conservative organization Young Americans for Freedom (YAF). According to Huston, at that time, the country was reeling from bombings and bomb threats, closed-down schools, National Guard alerts, university ROTC buildings being burned, police officers injured and killed, civilians killed, snipers firing from rooftops; in short, a country on the brink of armed insurrection. “Looking back, it is easy to understand why people now think the administration overreacted,” he says. “And had I known at the time that if we had done nothing, the problem would just go away, I would have recommended that we do nothing. But we did not understand that, and I don’t think that any reasonable person could have known this. Something had to be done. In the last analysis, I suppose this is an example of the dangers of letting down your guard against increased executive powers—no matter what the circumstances. Not that the danger was not real, but in this case the risk of the remedy was as great as the disease. There was a willingness to accept without challenge the Executive’s claim to increased power. That’s why we acted as we did, and it was a mistake.”
During the question-and-answer session at that meeting, a woman stood up to relay a story of how her son was being beat up by neighborhood bullies, and how, after trying in vain to get law enforcement authorities to step in, gave her son a baseball bat and told him to defend himself. Meanwhile, the partisan crowd is chanting and cheering in sympathy with the increasingly agitated mother, and the chant: “Hooray for Watergate! Hooray for Watergate!” began to fill the room. Huston waited for the cheering to die down and says, “I’d like to say that this really goes to the heart of the problem. Back in 1970, one thing that bothered me the most was that it seemed as though the only way to solve the problem was to hand out baseball bats. In fact, it was already beginning to happen. Something had to be done. And out of it came the Plumbers and then a progression to Watergate. Well, I think that it’s the best thing that ever happened to this country that it got stopped when it did. We faced up to it…. [We] made mistakes.”
In an interview after that speech, Huston speaks derisively about many of his former White House colleagues, particularly Richard Nixon. “Frankly, I wouldn’t put anything past him and those damn technocrats,” he says of Nixon and his senior aides. “you can’t begin to compete with the professional Nixonites when it comes to deception. If Nixon told them to nationalize the railroads, they’d have nationalized the railroads. If he’d told them to exterminate the Jews, they’d have exterminated the Jews.” Despite alleged authorship of the radical plan that bears his name, Tom Huston left the Nixon White House with his reputation intact and managed to remain above the morass of the Watergate Scandal.
He did not, however, escape the wickedly lucid scrutiny of legendary “Gonzo” journalist and author Hunter S. Thompson, who said of Huston in his book, “The Great Shark Hunt” in 1979, “the Tom Charles Huston Domestic Intelligence Plan amounted to nothing less than the creation of a White House Gestapo.”
During my period of closest association with Tom Huston, he was a partner with the Barnes & Thornburg law firm and was chairman of the firm’s Real Estate Department. Huston is listed in Who’s Who in America, The Best Lawyers in America and Who’s Who in Indianapolis Commercial Real Estate and is admitted to practice law in Indiana. The mild mannered man most often seen dressed in a fine mohair topcoat, English derby hat and smoking a pipe is far from what one might expect from the author of a document that, in 2007, author James Reston Jr. called “arguably the most anti-democratic document in American history… a blueprint to undermine the fundamental right of dissent and free speech in America.”