During the Cold War, the Americans and the Soviets were relentless in their efforts to outdo each other. As a part of this effort, the CIA ran many experiments, some very pragmatic, others fanciful and in the realms of science fiction. Operation Acoustic Kitty was one such experiment. Let us learn how and why this project was conducted, and whether it was successful or not.
Did You Know?
According to a few media reports, the Iranian police department caught 14 squirrels in 2007, that were suspected of being spies. Allegedly, the foreign intelligence services found that the squirrels were attached with eavesdropping equipment. However a source from the Iran Foreign Office refuted these stories, by calling them completely bogus.
The practice of using animals for espionage has been going on for years, and numerous fascinating tales about the ingenuity and partnership between man and animal can be found in the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the World Wars, etc. At the height of the Cold War, around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the United States of America was on edge, and was constantly on the look for an opportunity to get the upper hand over the Soviets. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in particular was looking at all possible avenues of information gathering, including creating spy planes and satellites, and using psychics and clairvoyants to view Russian secrets and attempting mind control. Another bizarre project also aimed to turn cats into spies.
Some imaginative people in the CIA reasoned that the Soviets would never suspect ordinary cats to be U.S. Agents. Also, the animal’s natural stealth and agility made it a good potential spy. So, implanting the animal with audio receivers and transmitters, seemed like a good idea for getting close to the Soviet operatives and eavesdropping on them. Despite being skeptical of this plan, the project got the go ahead. The details of the operation were revealed in some declassified, but partially redacted, documents released in 2001, after the National Security Archives put in a Freedom of Information Act request.
How Was Operation Acoustic Kitty Conducted?
CIA’s Acoustic Kitty Project was not a very easy project, and it took around 5 years to come to fruition. The technicians at the CIA had to make sure, that any implants designed by them did not interfere with the natural movements of the cat, so as to avoid suspicion from the enemy. The devices also had to be comfortable to the cat, so that the animals would not try to dislodge the equipment. The task was difficult, as the cats had to be installed with a microphone, a transmitter, an antenna, and a power source, that could handle the internal biological processes of the animal. Creating these technologies was estimated to have cost over USD 10 million.
For the first test subject, an adult female, gray and white cat was chosen. The surgery to make the cat a super spy involved placing the microphone into the ear canal, and embedding a ¾-inch long antenna into the base of skull, which was wired through the fur along the spine, all the way to the tail. A small transmitter and set of batteries were embedded into the chest cavity of the cat. The setup was designed so that the cat could be directed by the use of ultrasonic sound. After managing to somehow survive this surgery, the feline was now ready for further testing.
Why the Project Was a Failure
Once the surgery was completed and the cat woke up from the influence of anesthesia. The handlers tried to run the animal through test scenarios, all the while monitoring how the cat was reacting to the new additions to its body. However, they found this task very arduous, as cats are naturally averse to any kind of training, and they aren’t interested in the security of the nation either. The test animal would constantly get bored, distracted, or hungry and run off. To counter this behavior, another surgery was conducted and additional training was provided. This extra effort is estimated to have shot the expenses up to USD 20 million. However, there were signs of success, as the handlers had a certain amount of control over the cat’s actions. It was time for the first real-world field test.
In the test, the cat was taken to the Soviet compound in a CIA reconnaissance van. The van parked across the street from the two men, who were the targets for this test. The cat was let out of the van, and the men waited with bated breath as the cat started to cross the road. However, as soon as it took the first few steps, the cat was hit and killed by a passing taxi cab. The project had ended, before it had even begun.
The CIA agents collected the corpse, as they did not want the Soviets to find the audio equipment. Reasoning that using any agent which was so difficult to train and control as a bad idea, Project Acoustic Kitty was declared a complete failure and abandoned in 1967. The declassified documents, however, praised the work of the team, calling them ‘scientific pioneers’ for proving that cats can actually be trained to move according to instructions for short distances.
Other Animals Used as Spies
- During the Second World War, it was proposed to use pigeons to guide missiles towards their targets. The process involved putting the birds inside the missile and allowing it to peck on a video screen to direct the missile towards the intended target. The idea was scrapped because officials felt that the idea was just too ridiculous.
- During the 1960s, the U.S. military started training dolphins to detect naval mines and enemy swimmers and divers. Such aquatic agents are used even today.
- The CIA also trained ravens to drop listening devices in very specific locations.
- The U.S. army trained pigeons to fly ahead of the troops, and land if they spotted the enemy, acting as a warning. However, if the birds did not spot anything they kept flying and never returned.
- Honeybees are now being trained to detect the scent of bomb ingredients. When detecting such scents, the bees move their proboscis in unison, and a pattern recognition software alerts the authorities to the bees’ actions.
- Gerbils were used by the United Kingdom to find terrorists at airports, by detecting high levels of adrenalin in a person. However, the project was abandoned after the animals got confused and reacted to regular passengers who were just afraid of flying.
- Homing pigeons were widely used by American and British forces during World War II to transport messages, maps, and reconnaissance photographs. In fact, many of these birds were given awards to honor their valor during the war.
- Similar to the dolphins, sea lions were also trained by the U.S. Navy to cuff suspicious divers and swimmers.
- Although, not successfully used, the U.S. military strapped small bombs to bats and planned to use them as an attack option in World War II.
Although the Acoustic Kitty Project was a bust, it has inspired and lead to many animal-based inventions, such as insect-based flying surveillance drones, to pave the way of the future of international espionage.