Tom Huston walks the White House grounds with President Nixon.
Tom Huston walks the White House grounds with President Nixon.
KOKOMO – ANTIFA plots insurrection! Police officers gunned down! Unrest in the streets! Bombs mailed to politicians!  

Reading recent headlines, a person might be inclined to think that we are living in the most dangerous domestic environment in our country’s history. Former Nixon speechwriter and Presidential candidate Pat Buchanan recently said as much.

Today’s volatile domestic turmoil acknowledged, there once was a much more threatening time to our republic. That time was the extremely dangerous years of 1969-1970. Nearly 4,000 domestic bombings, 28 police officers shot by snipers and numerous groups, such as the Weather Underground, actively working to destroy our nation and daily riots in the streets shook our nation to its core.

Among the buildings bombed in New York City were the Marine Midland Building, Chase Manhattan Bank, Standard Oil, General Motors, the Criminal Courts Building, an Armed Forces Induction Center, the United Fruit Company and the Federal Office Building at Federal Plaza.

President Richard Nixon was alarmed by the potential existential threat and called upon one of his youngest and brightest minds to get a handle on the problem and recommend presidential action. That young, up-and-coming dynamo was a Hoosier, Charles “Tom” Huston of Logansport.

That such an important task as coordinating the White House response to a vital national security problem should be entrusted to the 29-year-old Huston was testament to the young Hoosier’s meteoric rise as a leading light in the American conservative movement. Tom Huston was no ordinary, newly minted attorney. He had traveled heady roads that few dare explore.

Born in 1941, the son of a Logansport insurance agent, Huston morphed from a fan of Democrat Adlai Stevenson to a “Jeffersonian Republican,” a firm believer in personal responsibility and small government. Huston took his conservative philosophy with him when he matriculated at Indiana University with a bachelor’s degree (1963) and law degree (1966). Huston graduated with high honors in both.

During law school, Huston found time to become the national chairman of the leading conservative youth movement in the country, Young Americans for Freedom, in 1965. In 1966, at a time when most college students were spending their time smoking marijuana, practicing free love and protesting the Vietnam War, Tom Huston organized the World Youth Crusade for Freedom which tried to battle communism across the globe, particularly in Vietnam.

It was also in 1966 that the laser-focused Huston took his first political plunge. After the whitewashing of Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election, the Republican Party was casting about looking for a credible candidate for 1968. California Gov. Ronald Reagan was gaining huge momentum for a potential run, but Huston felt that Reagan’s lack of experience in international politics put him at a disadvantage to former Vice President Richard Nixon. In a controversial and very public move, Huston announced his support for Nixon. This early support for Nixon brought Huston to Nixon’s closest aides.

Nixon repaid Huston’s gesture after his 1968 victory by inviting Huston to join Pat Buchanan and William Safire as a White House speechwriter. Huston was just winding down a two-year ROTC commitment with Army intelligence and, although he had been offered a job as an associate attorney with Barnes & Thornburg in Indianapolis, he asked his future employer for the opportunity to spend two years serving the president.

During his time on President Nixon’s staff, Huston speedily morphed from speechwriter to presidential advisor and special projects guru. Huston was immediately tasked with determining what type of special retirement perks Lyndon Johnson had bestowed upon himself prior to leaving office.  

An early, politically sensitive task was an assignment by Nixon to determine to what extent President Johnson had used the Paris Peace talks and bombing halt to try and influence the 1968 election and, as a separate issue, the intrigues of Republican political doyenne Anna Chenault to derail the Paris Peace talks, a potential violation of U.S. law and, possibly, even treason. Nixon knew the truth in both of these hot potato issues, but he wanted to know what an investigator might be able to uncover and potentially use against him in the future.

Additionally, Huston was asked by the president to thoroughly investigate “that Bay of Pigs thing” and Kennedy’s communications with Gen. Thieu of Vietnam prior to the assassination of President Diem.

As his time at White House proceeded, Huston’s methodical and intelligent approach to every assignment increasingly ingratiated himself to Nixon. “Have Huston look into this” was a favorite marching order from the president to Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman. Nixon’s increasing confidence in Huston and the domestic turmoil of 1969 and 1970 led to the young Hoosier’s most challenging assignment in service of his president and country.

In the spring of 1970, after a Weather Underground bomb-making factory accidentally exploded in Greenwich Village, President Nixon believed that the threat to our national security was significant enough that a thorough review of the problem and potential solutions must be undertaken. Huston was given the task of analyzing the magnitude of the internal security problem, determining what organizational difficulties between the four principal security agencies might be, finding what legal roadblocks to dealing with domestic political violence existed and, finally, coming up with a recommendation for the president on what needed to be done. Huston would not be doing his work alone; the president called out all of the big guns. Joining Huston on the Interagency Committee on Intelligence were FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, CIA Director Richard Helms, Lt. General Donald Bennett of the Defense Intelligence Agency and Admiral Noel Gaylor of the National Security Agency.

President Nixon brought all of the principals, including Huston and Haldeman, into the Oval Office and gave them their marching orders. There was to be no miscalculation. Richard Nixon was serious about the internal security risk to our nation.

Prior to the first working meeting of the Interagency Committee, Tom Huston was summoned to J. Edgar Hoover’s office for a formal introduction and sit-down. In a recent interview with Huston, he told me that he was ushered into Hoover’s office and brought before the director. Hoover’s desk had been elevated in such a way that he could look down on and lecture visitors like Zeus from a mountaintop. Huston received the obligatory history of the FBI, the heady days of Prohibition gangsters and bank robbers and the hunting down and killing of John Dillinger. The encounter was meant to intimidate, but as subsequent events demonstrated, Huston was unfazed by Hoover’s histrionics.

In the first meeting of the Interagency Committee, Hoover took the lead in trying to define the work of the group. More interested in protecting his agency, he intentionally mischaracterized Nixon’s marching orders delivered in the Oval Office. Hoover was more intent on creating a dissertation regarding the creation of the various intelligence services and their work up to this time. Huston could not tolerate Hoover’s intentional distortion of the president’s order and with the impetuosity known only to young and intelligent hard-chargers, he blurted out, “The president is not interested in a history lesson. He’s interested in understanding the problem that exists today and our best understanding of what the problem is likely to be into the future.”

With those few words Huston immediately made an enemy out of one of the most powerful people in the federal government. The other directors used Huston’s impertinence to allow them to chime in and state their agreement with the young Hoosier’s assessment of Nixon’s wishes. Hoover later snapped to FBI Intelligence guru William Sullivan that Huston was just a “hippie intellectual.”

The Interagency Committee met four times between May and the end of June, 1970. William Sullivan drafted the committee’s report and Tom Huston edited the document. The major problem confronting the committee was that their solution for dealing with the domestic terrorism issue was already being done on an extra-legal basis. Each agency had been repeatedly violating United States laws in regard to domestic surveillance, wiretaps, break-ins and disinformation for nearly two decades. Each agency was well aware of what the others were doing but none was willing to confess to the legal violations.  

Instead, they requested in the report that the president issue executive orders validating the work that they were already doing. Whether Nixon knew this ruse or not, Huston definitely did not.

While the final report broke very little new ground in the work of battling domestic terrorism, Huston did put his own stamp on it with one of his recommendations. The FBI had been using college students to monitor and report on campus radicals by infiltrating their groups. Limited by law to only recruiting informants that were at least 21 years old, Huston knew that to build a longer-term source, you needed to introduce informants as young as 18 into the mix. That recommendation made it into the final report.  

The final report, or as it has historically come to be referred to as the “Huston Plan,” was circulated among the four directors for their signatures. At William Sullivan’s recommendation, the plan was first submitted to the CIA, DIA and NSA for their approvals before the document went to J. Edgar Hoover. Even though Hoover’s FBI was up to its eyelids with past bugging and black bag operations, the director thought he could give himself some cover by footnoting each of the committee’s options as to whether or not the FBI approved of each provision.

When the other three directors learned of Hoover’s tactic, they were enraged. They knew what he was up to and strenuously objected. However, they knew that they would never get Hoover to sign off on any other document, so they acquiesced and submitted the footnoted report.

Huston submitted the report to President Nixon for his approval and executive action through Chief of Staff Haldeman. While Nixon approved and endorsed the itemized options as presented, he and Haldeman decided that it would be in the best interest to have the report go out over Huston’s signature. Huston complied and issued the report over his signature and the document was destined for history and infamy as the “Huston Plan.”

The Huston Plan was a 43-page report and outline of security options. Among other things, the plan called for domestic burglary, illegal electronic surveillance and opening the mail of domestic radicals. The document also called for the creation of camps in the Western states where anti-war protesters would be detained.

The ink had barely dried on the Huston Plan when J. Edgar Hoover set about dismantling it. Hoover may have been a lot of objectionable things, but he was a supreme politician and a master at the Washington power game. He took the plan directly to his ostensible boss, Attorney General John Mitchell, who nearly had a cow about its content. Mitchell knew the legal and constitutional issues raised by the document and hurriedly set off to the Oval Office to kill it. On July 26, 12 days after the Huston Plan had been approved by the president, he reconsidered his decision and killed the plan. The Huston Plan documents were retrieved from each of the four principal agencies and locked away in a White House safe, never to see the light of day. Or so it seemed.

Tom Huston had grown disillusioned with the Nixon White House. Like many a bright-eyed and idealistic person before him, he slowly came to see the Nixon Administration as seriously flawed. Entering his position with a passion for his conservative beliefs, he was saddened as Nixon came under the sway of Eastern liberal Democrat, Daniel Patrick Moynihan. While Huston wanted to see conservative principles applied to government welfare, Moynihan influenced Nixon to see the political expediency of continuing the practices of the Johnson Administration.  

Internationally, confrontation of communism around the world gave way to the détente advocated by Henry Kissinger’s crew in the White House. In short, the promising conservatism that led Huston to support candidate Nixon in 1966 gave way to the reality that political hacks such as Charles Colson were calling the shots. By the spring of 1971, Huston had had his fill of political expediency and intrigue and happily moved to Indianapolis to begin a successful career as a real estate attorney.

Unless fate had intervened, the American people would never have learned about the Huston Plan and the perceived dangers to our constitutional rights. It was only because of Watergate that we came to learn of the Huston Plan. While unrelated to the Watergate burglary and its resulting cover up, the keys to the White House safe had passed from Tom Huston to John Dean upon Huston’s departure for Indianapolis. As part of Dean’s desperate attempt to save his neck during the Watergate prosecution, he literally emptied the White House safe and passed the top secret, classified Huston Plan to the Washington, D.C., Federal Court. The Senate Watergate Committee subpoenaed the document and what had served as an unimplemented intelligence plan burned like a wildfire in the halls of Congress, the courts and the national media. In short, the Huston Plan became generally acknowledged in many circles as the most dangerous document in the history of our republic, a status that Huston still finds to be absurd and ridiculous.

In 1975, Tom Huston was called back to Washington to testify before the Church Committee, the Senate committee organized to examine intelligence abuses of the various governmental agencies. Although repeatedly challenged by Sens. Frank Church, Walter Mondale and Gary Hart, along with Chief Council F.A.O. Schwartz, Jr., Huston adroitly defended the plan associated with his name as a product created because of the extremely dangerous domestic environment in the United States. He also deftly pointed out that most of the recommended options were legal at the time of the creation of the plan and had only been subsequently found by the courts to be illegal. In one particularly testy exchange with Sen. Church, Huston reminded the senator that 4,000 bombs had been set off in our nation and that terrorists were gunning down police officers. Huston viewed his work as patriotic, reasonable and necessary for the safety of our country. Church’s line of attack fizzled at Huston’s emphatic response.

Looking back, Tom Huston realizes that his signature on the document gave Nixon and Haldeman plausible deniability should the plan blow up. He told the New York Times in 1973 that, “The real threat to internal security - in any society - is repression, but repression is the inevitable result of disorder. Forced to choose between order and freedom, people will take order. A handful of people cannot frontally overthrow the government, but if they can engender enough fear, they can generate an atmosphere that will bring out of the woodwork every repressive demagogue in the country.”

Huston acknowledged in a taped interview for the Nixon Library, conducted in 2008, that he should have known better at the time of the creation of the Huston Plan. However, Huston, at his young and relatively inexperienced age could not conceive that Richard Helms, James Angleton and the rest of the intelligence establishment would compromise the integrity of their agencies for a partisan political purpose.  

Huston returned to Indiana and forged a successful career as a real estate attorney and as principal of Brenwick Development. He worked religiously on historical preservation projects, served on committees of the Indiana Historical Society, served as a long-time member the board of the President Benjamin Harrison home and along the way built one of the largest and most impressive collections of presidential campaign memorabilia in the United States.  

Not bad work for a kid from Logansport. He now passes his time winding down Brenwick Development and spending time with his wife, Brenda, and their grandchildren.

In life, some citizens ignore history, some citizens study history and a very few citizens make history. Hoosier Tom Huston at a very young age sat in the lap of history.
 
Dunn is the former 4th CD and Howard County Republican chairman.