Great Mysteries of
the 1970s: Nixon, Watergate and the Huston Plan
note: The following reflects the entire
text of an article published by CNN on June 17, 2015. For the
Brinkley, CNN Presidential Historian, and Luke A. Nichter
Enough time has passed to have a well-grounded
perspective on the fall of Richard Nixon. What historians agree
on is that the break-in itself was less significant than the web
of improprieties and illegalities the investigation into the
burglary uncovered. What started as a routine FBI investigation
and prosecution by the U.S. attorney -- that became U.S. vs.
Liddy et al. -- metamorphosed into a bizarre unraveling of
The most significant phases of the
investigation into the abuses of government power under the
umbrella term "Watergate" -- the Church Committee, the
Rockefeller Commission, and U.S. vs. Gray, Felt, and Miller --
did not occur until after Nixon resigned in disgrace. These led
to landmark reforms that changed the relationship between the
government and the governed, including passage of the
Presidential Records and Materials Preservation Act, the
Presidential Records Act and the Foreign Intelligence
Surveillance Act, as well as the creation of standing
intelligence oversight committees in Congress.
It all started with a "third-rate burglary,"
to use the phrase coined by Nixon White House press secretary
Ronald Ziegler. Yet all these years later, we still do not have
answers to the some of the most fundamental questions
surrounding the Watergate burglary. Who ordered it? What were
the burglars looking for? On what authority did they act?
The Huston Plan
Recent releases of declassified Nixon White
House tapes -- which we've transcribed and edited into books --
suggest the National Security Agency at least partially
implemented provisions of the Huston Plan, a 1970 work product
of the Interagency Committee on Intelligence.
Chaired by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, ICI
membership included the major intelligence agencies, including
Richard Helms of the CIA, Donald Bennett of the Defense
Intelligence Agency, William Sullivan of the FBI, and Noel
Gayler of the National Security Agency. The White House liaison
was Tom Charles Huston, a conservative-minded attorney and
former intelligence official, whose name will be forever
associated with the mysterious report.
The Huston Plan gave new domestic and
international powers to the intelligence community, including
break-ins, domestic surveillance, and surreptitious entries. It
remains classified "Top Secret" today. Ironically, we know more
about illicit domestic surveillance performed by the
intelligence community in recent years, due to hackers, than we
do about such activities from more than four decades ago. Some
scholars have even floated the idea that the Huston Plan was a
forerunner to the authorities granted to the intelligence
community in section of 215 of the Patriot Act, which authorizes
the bulk metadata collection program.
On May 16, 1973, White House special counsel
J. Fred Buzhardt reported to Nixon that top NSA officials,
including Deputy Director Louis Tordella, had told him the
Huston Plan had been put into effect, according to a tape
released in August 2013 by the National Archives.
When the existence of the Huston Plan first
became public during Watergate, we were led to believe that it
was never implemented. Nixon ordered the plan and then recalled
it, so the story went.
However, the reason the Huston Plan remains
classified today is likely because at least portions of it were
indeed implemented after all. The basis for its continued
classification is to protect secrets that were operational.
Documents still classified
More broadly, the role of the intelligence
community during the Watergate period remains one of the most
enduring mysteries of the '70s.
Once our fleeting attention moved onto the
Nixon White House during the spring of 1973, it stayed there.
Still, people tried to ask the right questions.
"The question will arise, undoubtedly," Judge
John Sirica said during the trial of the burglars, "what was the
motive for doing what you people say you did." Principal U.S.
Attorney Earl Silbert also questioned the conventional wisdom
behind Watergate in his diary, which he thought was important
enough to future research to deposit at the National Archives.
Our chance to learn about the Huston Plan and
whether it was the authority upon which the Watergate burglary
took place slipped away when former White House counsel John W.
Dean III turned over the White House copy to the U.S. District
Court for the District of Columbia on May 14, 1973.
Dean took the plan with
him when he was fired on April 30. As a result of his giving the
document to the courts, it became out of the reach of
congressional subpoena and out of the reach of the Freedom of
Information Act, even though it was a document created by the
executive branch and should have been reviewable under the FOIA.
The document and associated records have been in the custody of
the court ever since. (Incidentally, we have
a petition backed by the American
Historical Association to review
and hopefully release these records. In addition, there are
still 700 hours of Nixon White House tapes that have not been
released by the Archives.)
When word reached the intelligence community
that the Huston Plan was no longer in the custody of the White
House, panic swept across the FBI, CIA, and NSA on May 17. The
FBI feared it could end up in the hands of congressional
investigators then looking into Watergate, with the result being
that "inference is likely to be drawn by Congressional
committees that this committee (the ICI) was a prelude to the
Watergate affair and the Ellsberg psychiatrist burglary."
In the end, the intelligence community won.
The Ervin Committee became, in effect, an unclassified inquiry
into Watergate. Sens. Sam Ervin and Howard Baker were never
given more than generic summaries of the Huston Plan. Baker and
his counsel Fred Thompson were always skeptical, but their
minority reports never went anywhere.
Later inquiries, such as the Church Committee,
were the beginning of the classified investigation into
Watergate and abuses of government power, but even the Church
Committee published no more than excerpts of the Huston Plan in
its multivolume public report.
When the Watergate investigation sharply
focused on Richard Nixon, the problem was never an insufficient
number of crimes or wrongdoing to send him to trial, whether in
the U.S. Senate or a later criminal or civil courtroom. The
elephant in the room was the quantity of classified material
that would be made public either in his prosecution or his
defense. That would have been unacceptable to the intelligence
community and to the future ability of the government to
Cutting Nixon out
There was indeed a "cancer on the presidency,"
as Dean said to Nixon on March 21, and the apparent answer of
the national security establishment was to cut it out -- to cut
Nixon out. The President had to resign, and he had to be
pardoned to ensure that inquiries into broader U.S. government
wrongdoing could not continue indefinitely.
More than 40 years after Nixon's resignation,
we still have him to kick around, to borrow his phrase. It will
remain this way for as long as the Huston Plan remains
classified. Virtually all of the Watergate grand jury records
remain closed except for Nixon's testimony. A huge mystery of
the '70s that still needs to be answered is whether the
Watergate burglars, plumbers and Ellsberg psychiatrist office
break-in artists derived their authority from the Huston Plan
and its enhanced domestic surveillance provisions.
As we watch "The Seventies" on CNN this summer
and reflect on how Watergate changed our nation, keep the Huston
Plan in mind. Hopefully these essential records will finally be
released so that the American public can know the truth of this
difficult decade in our nation's history.