Great mystery of the 1970s: Nixon, Watergate and the Huston Plan

Story highlights

  • Authors: 43 years later, we still don't have answers to some basic questions about Watergate burglary
  • They say the release of classified documents and more Nixon tapes could help explain what happened and why

Douglas Brinkley, CNN's presidential historian, and Luke A. Nichter are the authors of "The Nixon Tapes: 1973," which will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on September 22. The opinions expressed in this commentary are theirs. Watch "The Seventies" episode on Watergate, Thursday at 9 p.m. ET on CNN.

(CNN)The CNN documentary series "The Seventies" is a wonderful exercise in putting a tumultuous decade in perspective. This June 17 marks the 43rd anniversary of the Watergate break-in.

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 events.
Douglas Brinkley
Luke Nichter
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 function.

    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.