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The Huston Plan

Richard Nixon had been president just over a year when he initiated a string of actions which ultimately brought down his presidency. The White House-ordered invasion of Cambodia, a militarily ineffective foray, unleashed a wave of domestic protests, culminating in the shootings at Kent State in May of 1970. Stung by the reaction, the president called the heads of the intelligence agencies, and on June 5 he told Richard Helms of CIA, J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI, Lieutenant General Donald Bennett of orA, and Admiral Noel Gayler of NSA that he wanted to know what steps they and their agencies could take to get a better handle on domestic radicalism.

According to journalist Theodore White, who later reconstructed the meeting: "He was dissatisfied with them all ... they were overstaffed, they weren't getting the story, they were spending too much money, there was no production, they had to get together. In sum, he wanted a thorough coordination of all American intelligence agencies; he wanted to know what the links were between foreign groups - al-Fatah; the Arab terrorists; the Algerian subsidy center - and domestic street turbulence. They would form a committee, J. Edgar Hoover would be the chairman, Tom Huston of the White House would be the staffman."

Thomas Charles Huston, the evident object of the president's displeasure, was a young right-wing lawyer who had been hired as an assistant to White House speech writer Patrick Buchanan. His only qualifications were political - he had been president of the Young Americans for Freedom, a conservative campus organization nationwide. And Huston wasn't even the key player. Hoover was named chair of the committee, in order to place him in a position in which the FBI would finally be forced to confront domestic radicalism.

The committee report confronted the issue, all right, and it laid out a number of "further steps," many of which were illegal. The report recommended increasing wiretapping and microphone surveillance of radicals - relaxing restrictions on mail covers and mail intercepts; carrying out selective break-ins against domestic radicals and organizations; lifting age restrictions on FBI campus informants; and broadening NSA's intercepts of the international communications of American citizens. But Hoover knew the score, and he attached footnotes to each of the techniques which he did not want the FBI involved in. When it went to the president, it was carefully qualified by the FBI, the one organizations that would be the most involved.

The president sent word back to Huston, through Haldeman, of his approval, but did not initiate any paperwork. So when the committee was tasked to implement the recommendations, it was tasked by Tom Charles Huston, not the president. Hoover informed John Mitchell, the attorney general, that he would not participate without a written order from Mitchell. Mitchell discussed this with Nixon, and both agreed that it would be too dangerous. Ultimately, the president voided the plan, but not before NSA had become directly involved in the seamier side of life.

NSA was ambivalent. On the one hand, Gayler and his committee representative, Benson Buffham, viewed it as a way to get Hoover to relax his damaging restrictions on break-ins and wiretaps. Gayler had personally pleaded with Hoover, to no avail ~ now the committee mechanism might force the stubborn director into a corner. But that was a legal matter for the FBI to sort out. When asked about intercepting the communications of Americans involved in domestic radicalism, Gayler and Buffltam became more pensive. Th()y informed the committee that "NSA currently interprets its jurisdictional mandate as precluding the production and dissemination of intelligence from communications between U.S. citizens, and as precluding specific targeting against communications of U.S. nationals;" Of course American names occasionally appeared in intercepted traffic, but use of even this incidental intercept needed to be regularized by a change to NSCID 6.35 As with the FBI, NSA wanted a legal leg to stand on.

What stand did NSA take? Gayler genuinely wanted to be helpful, especially when the president so insisted on getting help. In meetings he seemed ready to turn NSA's legendary collection capability to the services of the Huston mandate. But his lawyers advised caution, and, according to Huston himself, NSA was more nervous than any of the other intelligence agencies. Gayler clearly wanted a legal mandate.

Under pressure from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and Attorney General John Mitchell, Nixon withdrew the Huston Plan. Dropped four days before it was due, plans had gone to the directors of the FBI, CIA, DIA and the NSA, but only Hoover objected for fear of discovery. Placed in a White House safe, Huston's blueprint became public in 1973 after Congress investigated the Watergate affair and uncovered documentary evidence that Nixon had ordered the NSA to illegally monitor American citizens.

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