The Huston Plan

On Friday, June 5, 1970, four days before the attack on NYPD headquarters, President Nixon summoned J. Edgar Hoover and CIA director Richard Helms to the Oval Office, along with the chiefs of the National Security Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency. Nixon was furious. Everywhere he looked, the antiwar movement seemed to be turning increasingly violent. The deaths at Kent State were still fresh in the air. Weatherman had now declared war; its first attacks were promised any day. This had gone far beyond the Townhouse and random bombings. The president lectured Hoover and the others that “revolutionary terrorism” now represented the single greatest threat against American society. He demanded that the four agencies assemble a concerted, overarching intelligence plan to defeat its spread.

At the FBI, Hoover’s No. 2 man, Bill Sullivan, already had such a plan well in hand. The following Monday, June 8, he convened the first of five meetings intended to tear down the walls between the FBI, the CIA, and their brethren, lift all restrictions on domestic intelligence gathering, and clear the way for all four agencies to institute every dirty trick in the FBI’s old playbook: illegal break-ins, unilateral wiretapping, the opening of mail, even inserting informants into undergraduate classrooms. They called it the Huston Plan, after Tom Charles Huston, the twenty-nine-year-old Nixon aide who championed it alongside Sullivan. When Huston relayed the plan to Nixon on July 14, the president said he approved. There was just one problem: J. Edgar Hoover was dead set against the Huston Plan.

The old man had grown exceedingly cautious in his last years, fearful his legacy would be tarnished if the rampant illegalities he had ordered over the years burst into view. He had never liked working with the CIA and had rarely done so; he didn’t want anyone, especially the FBI’s institutional rivals, knowing the Bureau’s secrets. But his main objection was the question of blame if this ever became public. Nixon had given only verbal approval. Hoover, who had no idea that Sullivan had already cleared FBI offices to engage in almost all these illegal tactics, had no doubt he and the FBI would take the fall.

Hoover had something else to hide: the Bureau’s near-total inability to learn much of anything about Weatherman and other violence-prone radicals. With the loss of Larry Grathwohl, the FBI didn’t have a single informant anywhere near Weatherman—not one. Nor did it any longer have any useful wiretaps. As a result, the Nixon administration was badly misreading Weatherman’s status. No one at the FBI had any idea that the Townhouse had left the group in shambles. In fact, the startling explosion in the heart of New York City left senior officials believing exactly the opposite: that Weatherman constituted as dire a threat to national security as any the United States now faced. In the FBI’s nightmare scenario, Weatherman would lead thousands of long-haired demonstrators into a campaign of sabotage and assassination.

Without informants, FBI agents across the country had first tried traditional investigative methods, interviewing Weatherman family and friends. This got them nowhere. A few agents were allowed to grow their hair long and linger at demonstrations, but it would take months if not years before they could be expected to infiltrate Weatherman or its allies. The fact was, the FBI had never attempted to root out an underground group like Weatherman. The legality of the tactics under consideration—or already under way—was unclear; no court, for instance, had yet ruled whether wiretaps could be installed without a court order. “Can I put an informant in a college classroom?” William Dyson, the agent put in charge of Weatherman cases, recalls wondering. “Can I penetrate any college organization? What can I do? And nobody had any rules or regulations. There was nothing.”

Unsure and unconnected, Dyson and his peers had no clear sense of how to safely operate in this strange new world of long hair, drugs, and secrecy. The one thing everyone believed was that Weatherman would never be brought down by traditional methods. That brought extraordinary pressure to bend the rules. “There were certain people in the FBI who made the decision: We’ve got to take a step—anything to get rid of these people,” Dyson recalls. “Anything! Not kill them, per se, but anything went. If we suspect somebody’s involved in this, put a wiretap on them. Put a microphone in. Steal his mail. Do anything!”