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Profile: Tom Charles Huston

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Tom Charles Huston was a participant or observer in the following events:

President Nixon meets with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, CIA Director Richard Helms, and the heads of the NSA and DIA to discuss a proposed new domestic intelligence system. His presentation is prepared by young White House aide Tom Charles Huston (derisively called “Secret Agent X-5” behind his back by some White House officials). The plan is based on the assumption that, as Nixon says, “hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Americans—mostly under 30—are determined to destroy our society.” Nixon complains that the various US intelligence agencies spend as much time battling with one another over turf and influence as they do working to locate threats to national security both inside and outside of the country. The agencies need to prove the assumed connections between the antiwar demonstrators and Communists. The group in Nixon’s office will now be called the “Interagency Committee on Intelligence,” Nixon orders, with Hoover chairing the new ad hoc group, and demands an immediate “threat assessment” about domestic enemies to his administration. Huston will be the White House liaison. Historian Richard Reeves will later write: “The elevation of Huston, a fourth-level White House aide, into the company of Hoover and Helms was a calculated insult. Nixon was convinced that both the FBI and the CIA had failed to find the links he was sure bound domestic troubles and foreign communism. But bringing them to the White House was also part of a larger Nixon plan. He was determined to exert presidential control over the parts of the government he cared most about—the agencies dealing with foreign policy, military matters, intelligence, law, criminal justice, and general order.” (Reeves 2001, pp. 229-230)

President Nixon approves the “Huston Plan” for greatly expanding domestic intelligence-gathering by the FBI, CIA and other agencies. Four days later he rescinds his approval. (Washington Post 2008) Nixon aide Tom Charles Huston comes up with the plan, which involves authorizing the CIA, FBI, NSA, and military intelligence agencies to escalate their electronic surveillance of “domestic security threats” in the face of supposed threats from Communist-led youth agitators and antiwar groups (see June 5, 1970). The plan would also authorize the surreptitious reading of private mail, lift restrictions against surreptitious entries or break-ins to gather information, plant informants on college campuses, and create a new, White House-based “Interagency Group on Domestic Intelligence and Internal Security.” Huston’s Top Secret memo warns that parts of the plan are “clearly illegal.” Nixon approves the plan, but rejects one element—that he personally authorize any break-ins. Nixon orders that all information and operations to be undertaken under the new plan be channeled through his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, with Nixon deliberately being left out of the loop. The first operations to be undertaken are using the Internal Revenue Service to harass left-wing think tanks and charitable organizations such as the Brookings Institution and the Ford Foundation. Huston writes that “[m]aking 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.” (Reeves 2001, pp. 235-236) In 2007, author James Reston Jr. will call the Huston plan “arguably the most anti-democratic document in American history… a blueprint to undermine the fundamental right of dissent and free speech in America.” (Reston 2007, pp. 102)

After President Nixon approves of the so-called “Huston Plan” to implement a sweeping new domestic intelligence and internal security apparatus (see July 14, 1970), FBI director J. Edgar Hoover brings the plan’s author, White House aide Tom Charles Huston (see June 5, 1970), into his office and vents his disapproval. The “old ways” of unfettered wiretaps, political infiltration, and calculated break-ins and burglaries are “too dangerous,” he tells Huston. When, not if, the operations are revealed to the public, they will open up scrutiny of US law enforcement and intelligence agencies, and possibly reveal other, past illegal domestic surveillance operations that would embarrass the government. 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 orders all copies of the decision memo collected, and withdraws his support for the plan. (Reeves 2001, pp. 236-237) W. Mark Felt, the deputy director of the FBI, later calls Huston “a kind of White House gauleiter over the intelligence community.” Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward will note that the definition of “gauleiter” is, according to Webster’s Dictionary, “the leader or chief officoal of a political district under Nazi control.” (Woodward 2005, pp. 33-34)

Nixon aide Charles Colson and Colson’s aide George Bell begin working on an “enemies list,” people and organizations the White House believes are inimical to President Nixon and his agenda (see June 27, 1973). The initial list includes a group of reporters who may have written favorably about Nixon and his actions in the past, but who cannot be trusted to continue, and a second group of reporters who are considered “definitely hostile.” A second list, from White House aide Tom Charles Huston, is staggeringly long, and includes, in historian Richard Reeves’s words, “most every man or woman who had ever said a discouraging word about Nixon.” A third list is made up of “enemy” organizations, including several left-of-center think tanks and foundations, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the AFL-CIO. (Reeves 2001, pp. 297-298)

During a conversation on how to best use the “Pentagon Papers” to their own advantage (see June 17, 1971), President Nixon asks chief of staff H. R. Haldeman and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger why they could never prove that former President Lyndon Johnson halted US bombings of Vietnam for political reasons. Haldeman has suggested that they could use such proof to blackmail Johnson. “G_ddamnit, I asked for it,” he says. “I said I needed it.” Kissinger replies: “Bob and I have been trying to put the thing together for three years. We have nothing here, Mr. President.” Then Haldeman interjects, “But there is a file on it.” Nixon pounces. “Where?” Haldeman replies that White House aide Tom Charles Huston is sure that such a file exists at the Brookings Institution. Nixon suggests that someone break into the Institution and take the files (see June 30-July 1, 1971). “I want it implemented.… G_ddamnit, get in there and get those files. Blow the safe and get them.” (Reeves 2001, pp. 334-335)

President Nixon and chief of staff H. R. Haldeman discuss a suggestion by Nixon campaign chief John Mitchell regarding the Watergate burglary and bugging (see 2:30 a.m.June 17, 1972). Mitchell believes that burglar G. Gordon Liddy should take the entire blame for the burglary, and confess to being the operation’s “mastermind.” “You mean you’d have Liddy confess and say he did it unauthorized?” Nixon asks. Haldeman affirms the question. After further discussion, Nixon says: “The reaction is going to be primarily Washington and not the country, because I think the country doesn’t give much of a sh_t about it other than the ones we’ve already bugged.… Everybody around here is all mortified by it. It’s a horrible thing to rebut [whereas] most people around the country think this is routine, that everybody’s trying to bug everybody else, it’s politics.” Nixon is struck with a new idea during the conversation—use every accusation of the Watergate bugging to claim that it only proves the Democrats were bugging the Nixon campaign. Maybe they should plant a bug on themselves and claim the Democrats planted it, Nixon suggests. Haldeman circles the conversation back to Liddy, and Nixon asks, “Is Liddy willing?” Haldeman replies: “He says he is. Apparently he is a little bit nuts… apparently he’s sort of a Tom Huston-type guy (see June 5, 1970).… He sort of likes the dramatic. He’s said, ‘If you want to put me before a firing squad and shoot me, that’s fine. I’d kind of like to be like Nathan Hale.’” (Reeves 2001, pp. 505-506)

Former White House aide Tom Charles Huston, the author of the infamous “Huston Plan” (see July 14, 1970), talks about Watergate and civil liberties with a small audience, the Philadelphia chapter of the conservative organization Young Americans for Freedom (YAF).
Plan for Surveillance - His topic is “Government Surveillance of Private Citizens: Necessary or Ominous?” Huston discusses at some length the discussions and issues surrounding his plan, which would have allowed for draconian police and surveillance powers to be used against the populace and particularly against anyone identifying themselves with antiwar protesters and organizations. According to Huston, 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. Huston paints a picture of a country on the brink of armed insurrection.
Overreaction - But Huston isn’t ready to draw such a conclusion. “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.”
"Hooray for Watergate" - During the question-and-answer session, a middle-aged woman tells a story of how her son was being beat up by neighborhood bullies, and how, after trying in vain to get authorities to step in, gave her son a baseball bat and told him to defend himself. By this point the crowd is chanting and cheering in sympathy with the increasingly agitated mother, and some begin yelling: “Hooray for Watergate! Hooray for Watergate!” Huston is clearly nonplussed by the audience’s reaction, and, when the chanting and cheering dies down, 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.” (Burlingame 10/1974)

Bo Burlingame, a former member of the radical antiwar group the Weather Underground, interviews former Nixon White House aide Tom Charles Huston, the author of the notorious, unconstitutional “Huston Plan” (see July 14, 1970). Huston is just coming off a speech to a conservative audience in which he said that his plan, and Nixon’s attempt to seize executive power at the expense of Congress and the Constitution, was excessive and mistaken (see Late 1973). Huston, a lawyer, a former Army intelligence officer, and an early leader of the Indiana chapter of the conservative extremist group Young Americans for Freedom, tells Burlingame that he found an interesting parallel between his group of right-wing extremists and Burlingame’s left-wing extremists: “I was interested to learn that you people were frustrated because nobody was listening to you. You know, we felt the same thing at the White House. It seemed as if a momentous crisis was at hand, and nobody was aware of it or cared.”
Coup d'Etat Begins with Creation of Fear in Populace - Huston is contemptuous and dismissive of 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. “[Y]ou 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.” He took a position with the White House in January 1969 “believing that things were finally going to be set straight.”
Disillusioned - Huston became increasingly disillusioned with the lack of idealism in the Nixon White House, and left after deciding that Nixon and his top officials were less interested in implementing true conservative reforms and more interested in merely accumulating power. The Nixon team was an apolitical, power-hungry bunch “whose intellectual tradition is rooted in the philosophy of [marketing and advertising guru] J. Walter Thompson.… This administration has done more to debauch conservative values than anything else in recent history.”
Fear and Repression - Considering his plan to abrogate the fundamental rights of hundreds of thousands of Americans, Huston seems quite supportive of those rights even in the face of national danger. “The real threat to national security is repression,” he had told a New York Times interviewer not long before the Burlingame interview. “A handful of people can’t frontally overthrow the government. But if they can engender enough fear, they can generate an atmosphere that will bring out every repressive demagogue in the country.”
Explaining the Huston Plan - Huston explains the rationale behind his radically repressive plan, telling Burlingame that the country was on the brink of mass insurrection and the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover was not doing nearly enough to combat the civil rights and antiwar protesters, particularly groups like the Black Panthers and Burlingame’s Weather Underground. By early 1970, many in the White House were ready to ease Hoover out of power; when, shortly thereafter, the mass protests against the Cambodia bombings (see February 23-24, 1969 and April 24-30, 1970) and the Jackson State and Kent State shootings (see May 4-5, 1970) occurred, Huston and others at the White House thought there was a far more organized and systematic underground, left-wing revolution going on than they had evidence to document. “We just didn’t believe we were getting the whole story,” he says.
Removing Hoover - Getting rid of Hoover and replacing him with someone more amenable to the White House’s agenda was the first goal, Huston says. The June 1970 “Interagency Committee on Intelligence” (see June 5, 1970) was designed to maneuver around Hoover and have him implicitly authorize counter-insurrection methods that he had always opposed, including “surreptitious entry” and “covert mail coverage.” The committee was the genesis of the Huston Plan. But Hoover stops the plan in its tracks by going through Attorney General John Mitchell. Whatever he said to Mitchell is not known, but Mitchell chewed out Huston and saw to it that the plan was terminated. Huston says that the unit of illegal campaign operatives later known as the “Plumbers” (see July 20, 1971) stems in part from the White House’s inability to force Hoover from power. Had Hoover made the FBI available to conduct the illegal burglaries and surveillances that Nixon wanted done—had Nixon supported the Huston Plan—the Plumbers would have never come into existence. “I find that totally indefensible,” Huston observes.
Ethical Confusion - Burlingame is bemused by Huston’s apparent ethical schizophrenia—on the one hand, Huston has come out strongly for constitutional freedoms, and on the other hand is now saying that his plan, which he himself has long admitted was blatantly illegal, would have avoided the entire Watergate contretemps and would have worked to bring the country into line. In fact, Huston asserts, he believed at the time that the Watergate conspiracy was completely legal. “I took the view that in internal security matters the president had the right to infringe on what would, in other circumstances, be constitutional rights, but that decision encompassed a decision that you forfeit the right to prosecute.” This view is why he left the Justice Department entirely out of the loop on his plan, he says.
Deliberately Keeping outside the Framework of the Law - The entire Huston plan would have never been used for anything except intelligence-gathering, he says. It was necessary for the plan to be exercised outside the structure of US law, he says. “[Y]ou don’t want a constitutional or legal mandate,” he says. “You don’t want to institutionalize the excesses required to meet extraordinary threats. The law just can’t anticipate all the contingencies.” He now thinks that he went too far with pushing for extraordinary powers; that if Hoover could have been eased out of power, the FBI could have done what needed doing without breaking the law. Burlingame writes that he cannot help but think that Huston is employing “tortured legalisms” to “cover his flank,” and questions Huston’s portrait of himself as an increasingly marginalized conservative idealist who became so disillusioned with the amoral power-mad bureaucrats of the Nixon administration that he walked out rather than further jeopardize his own principles. (Burlingame 10/1974)

1974 New York Times headline.1974 New York Times headline. [Source: New York Times]The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has repeatedly, and illegally, spied on US citizens for years, reveals investigative journalist Seymour Hersh in a landmark report for the New York Times. Such operations are direct violations of the CIA’s charter and the law, both of which prohibit the CIA from operating inside the United States. Apparently operating under orders from Nixon officials, the CIA has conducted electronic and personal surveillance on over 10,000 US citizens, as part of an operation reporting directly to then-CIA Director Richard Helms. In an internal review in 1973, Helms’s successor, James Schlesinger, also found dozens of instances of illegal CIA surveillance operations against US citizens both past and present (see 1973). Many Washington insiders wonder if the revelation of the CIA surveillance operations tie in to the June 17, 1972 break-in of Democratic headquarters at Washington’s Watergate Hotel by five burglars with CIA ties. Those speculations were given credence by Helms’s protests during the Congressional Watergate hearings that the CIA had been “duped” into taking part in the Watergate break-in by White House officials.
Program Beginnings In Dispute - One official believes that the program, a successor to the routine domestic spying operations during the 1950s and 1960s, was sparked by what he calls “Nixon’s antiwar hysteria.” Helms himself indirectly confirmed the involvement of the Nixon White House, during his August 1973 testimony before the Senate Watergate investigative committee (see August 1973).
Special Operations Carried Out Surveillance - The domestic spying was carried out, sources say, by one of the most secretive units in CI, the special operations branch, whose employees carry out wiretaps, break-ins, and burglaries as authorized by their superiors. “That’s really the deep-snow section,” says one high-level intelligence expert. The liaison between the special operations unit and Helms was Richard Ober, a longtime CI official. “Ober had unique and very confidential access to Helms,” says a former CIA official. “I always assumed he was mucking about with Americans who were abroad and then would come back, people like the Black Panthers.” After the program was revealed in 1973 by Schlesinger, Ober was abruptly transferred to the National Security Council. He wasn’t fired because, says one source, he was “too embarrassing, too hot.” Angleton denies any wrongdoing.
Supposition That Civil Rights Movement 'Riddled' With Foreign Spies - Moscow, who relayed information about violent underground protesters during the height of the antiwar movement, says that black militants in the US were trained by North Koreans, and says that both Yasser Arafat, of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, and the KGB were involved to some extent in the antiwar movement, a characterization disputed by former FBI officials as based on worthless intelligence from overseas. For Angleton to make such rash accusations is, according to one member of Congress, “even a better story than the domestic spying.” A former CIA official involved in the 1969-70 studies by the agency on foreign involvement in the antiwar movement says that Angleton believes foreign agents are indeed involved in antiwar and civil rights organizations, “but he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
'Cesspool' of Illegality Distressed Schlesinger - According to one of Schlesinger’s former CIA associates, Schlesinger was distressed at the operations. “He found himself in a cesspool,” says the associate. “He was having a grenade blowing up in his face every time he turned around.” Schlesinger, who stayed at the helm of the CIA for only six months before becoming secretary of defense, informed the Department of Justice (DOJ) about the Watergate break-in, as well as another operation by the so-called “plumbers,” their burglary of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office after Ellsberg released the “Pentagon Papers” to the press. Schlesinger began a round of reforms of the CIA, reforms that have been continued to a lesser degree by Colby. (Some reports suggest that CIA officials shredded potentially incriminating documents after Schlesinger began his reform efforts, but this is not known for sure.) Intelligence officials confirm that the spying did take place, but, as one official says, “Anything that we did was in the context of foreign counterintelligence and it was focused at foreign intelligence and foreign intelligence problems.”
'Huston Plan' - But the official also confirms that part of the illegal surveillance was carried out as part of the so-called “Huston plan,” an operation named for former White House aide Tom Charles Huston (see July 26-27, 1970) that used electronic and physical surveillance, along with break-ins and burglaries, to counter antiwar and civil rights protests, “fomented,” as Nixon believed, by so-called black extremists. Nixon and other White House officials have long denied that the Huston plan was ever implemented. “[O]bviously,” says one government intelligence official, the CIA’s decision to create and maintain dossiers on US citizens “got a push at that time.…The problem was that it was handled in a very spooky way. If you’re an agent in Paris and you’re asked to find out whether Jane Fonda is being manipulated by foreign intelligence services, you’ve got to ask yourself who is the real target. Is it the foreign intelligence services or Jane Fonda?” Huston himself denies that the program was ever intended to operate within the United States, and implies that the CIA was operating independently of the White House. Government officials try to justify the surveillance program by citing the “gray areas” in the law that allows US intelligence agencies to encroach on what, by law, is the FBI’s bailiwick—domestic surveillance of criminal activities—when a US citizen may have been approached by foreign intelligence agents. And at least one senior CIA official says that the CIA has the right to engage in such activities because of the need to protect intelligence sources and keep secrets from being revealed.
Surveillance Program Blatant Violation of Law - But many experts on national security law say the CIA program is a violation of the 1947 law prohibiting domestic surveillance by the CIA and other intelligence agencies. Vanderbilt University professor Henry Howe Ransom, a leading expert on the CIA, says the 1947 statute is a “clear prohibition against any internal security functions under any circumstances.” Ransom says that when Congress enacted the law, it intended to avoid any possibility of police-state tactics by US intelligence agencies; Ransom quotes one Congressman as saying, “We don’t want a Gestapo.” Interestingly, during his 1973 confirmation hearings, CIA Director Colby said he believed the same thing, that the CIA has no business conducting domestic surveillance for any purpose at any time: “I really see less of a gray area [than Helms] in that regard. I believe that there is really no authority under that act that can be used.” Even high-level government officials were not aware of the CIA’s domestic spying program until very recently. “Counterintelligence!” exclaimed one Justice Department official upon learning some details of the program. “They’re not supposed to have any counterintelligence in this country. Oh my God. Oh my God.” A former FBI counterterrorism official says he was angry upon learning of the program. “[The FBI] had an agreement with them that they weren’t to do anything unless they checked with us. They double-crossed me all along.” Many feel that the program stems, in some regards, from the long-standing mistrust between the CIA and the FBI. How many unsolved burglaries and other crimes can be laid at the feet of the CIA and its domestic spying operation is unclear. In 1974, Rolling Stone magazine listed a number of unsolved burglaries that its editors felt might be connected with the CIA. And Senator Howard Baker (R-TN), the vice chairman of the Senate Watergate investigative committee, has alluded to mysterious links between the CIA and the Nixon White House. On June 23, 1972, Nixon told his aide, H.R. Haldeman, “Well, we protected Helms from a hell of a lot of things.” (Hersh 12/22/1974 pdf file)

Former President Richard Nixon, generally acknowledged as having bested his interviewer David Frost in the first rounds of a set of interviews (see April 6, 1977), now defends his support for the infamous Huston Plan, admitted by the plan’s author himself to be illegal in its breathtaking contempt for civil liberties and the rule of Constitutional law. Former Watergate prosecutor Philip Lacovara had told Frost’s aide James Reston Jr. that it was surprising Huston was not taken out and shot. Reston will later write acidly: “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 (see July 26-27, 1970). Only then was approval rescinded (although many felt it remained in effect under the code name COINTELPRO).” Reston will write that during this interview, Nixon paints a picture of an America engulfed in armed insurrection, a portrait so convincing that the Huston Plan actually seems a rational response. Frost fails to press the point that the antiwar protests were largely nonviolent and not a threat to national security. (Reston 2007, pp. 102-105) Frost does ask that if this was indeed so vital to national security, why not ask Congress to make such acts legal? “In theory,” Nixon replies, “this would be perfect, but in practice, it won’t work.” It would merely alert the targeted dissenters and raise a public outcry. (Time 5/30/1977) This part of the interview sessions will be aired on May 19, 1977. (Landmark Cases 8/28/2007)

Advertisement for Nixon/Frost interviews.Advertisement for Nixon/Frost interviews. [Source: Bamboo Trading (.com)]Former President Richard Nixon, generally acknowledged as having bested his interviewer David Frost in the first rounds of interviews (see April 6, 1977), now defends his support for the infamous Huston Plan, admitted by the plan’s author himself to be illegal in its breathtaking contempt for civil liberties and the rule of Constitutional law. Former Watergate prosecutor Philip Lacovara had told Frost’s aide James Reston Jr. that it was surprising Huston was not taken out and shot. Reston will write acidly: “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 (see July 26-27, 1970). Only then was approval rescinded (although many felt it remained in effect under the code name COINTELPRO).” Reston will write that, during this interview, Nixon paints a picture of an America engulfed in armed insurrection, a portrait so convincing that the Huston Plan actually seems a rational response. Frost fails to press the point that the antiwar protests were largely nonviolent and not a threat to national security. (Reston 2007, pp. 102-105) Frost does ask that if this was indeed so vital to national security, why not ask Congress to make such acts legal? “In theory,” Nixon replies, “this would be perfect, but in practice, it won’t work.” It would merely alert the targeted dissenters and raise a public outcry. (Time 5/30/1977) This part of the interview sessions will be aired on May 19, 1977. (Landmark Cases 8/28/2007)


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