The CIA Plan to Use Cats as Spies (and the Taxi That Ruined It)
© JASON REED/Reuters/Corbis
The Internet has been going nuts over the news that a dog was among the elite commandos who raided Osama bin Laden’s compound and killed him. In response, Slate put together a slideshow of photoillustrations depicting the "Cats of War." Cats being used as agents of war by the government is no joke, though. Around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Central Intelligence Agency was doing anything and everything to get an edge on the Soviets.
Including turning to cats as agents of espionage.
The CIA figured the Soviets would never suspect a cat to be a U.S. spy, so the animal, implanted with audio recording or transmitting devices, could get close to foreign operatives unhindered and eavesdrop on them.
It’s an idea that almost forces the eyes to roll. Even people inside the agency didn’t think very highly of the plan. Victor Marchetti, a former special assistant to the agency’s director, told The Telegraph that the project was a failure, and a gruesome one at that. “They slit the cat open, put batteries in him, wired him up,” Marchetti said. “They made a monstrosity.”
Project Acoustic Kitty
If only it were as easy as Marchetti makes it seem.
“Project Acoustic Kitty,” as it was called within the agency, actually took some five years to complete. No one seems to remember who first suggested spy cats, but once the Acoustic Kitty idea was fleshed out, it became a joint project between the CIA’s Office of Technical Services and Office of Research and Development.
The departments’ engineers and technicians had their work cut out for them. For the cats to be effective spies, the implants couldn’t affect any of their natural movements, lest the spies draw attention to themselves, or cause any irritation that would prompt the cats to try to dislodge the equipment by rubbing, clawing or licking it. All the components – a power source, a transmitter, a microphone and an antenna – would also need to withstand the cats’ internal temperature, humidity and chemistry.
Working with outside audio equipment contractors, the CIA built a 3/4-inch-long transmitter to embed at the base of the cat’s skull. Finding a place for the microphone was difficult at first, but the ear canal turned out to be prime, and seemingly obvious, real estate. The antenna was made from fine wire and woven, all the way to the tail, through the cat’s long fur to conceal it. The batteries also gave the techies a little trouble, since the cats’ size limited them to using only the smallest batteries and restricted the amount of time the cat would be able to record.
Tests of the equipment’s capabilities and performance were run first on dummies and then on live animals. During these tests, the cats were also monitored for their reactions to the equipment, to ensure their comfort and make sure their maneuverability and behavior were normal. After the agency weighed potential fallout from negative publicity against the value of successful feline spies, they proceeded to wire up their first fully functional agent.
According to Spycraft: The Secret History of the CIA’s Spytechs, an adult gray-and-white female cat was selected as the first prototype. A small crowd of agents and techs who worked on the project watched the vet perform the equipment installation. One audio engineer, seeing the first incision and a trace of blood, had to sit down and regain his composure, but the operation went smoothly after that and took about an hour.
After the cat woke up from the anesthesia, she was put into a recovery room to recoup and undergo further testing. As she was run through several operational scenarios, her behavior became inconsistent. Her handlers began to worry they had made a huge mistake.
The successful experimental animals had, up to this point, been able to move short distances and target specific locations in a familiar environment. Outside the lab, there was just no herding the cat. She’d wander off when she got bored, distracted or hungry. The cat’s hunger issues were addressed with another operation. The additional surgical and training expenses are estimated to have brought the total cost up to $20 million, but Acoustic Kitty was finally ready to venture into the real world. (The CIA documents on the project are still partially redacted, so we don’t know if the first cat in the field was the female cat mentioned before or a different one.)
For the first field test, a CIA reconnaissance van was across the street from a park, where the marks were sitting on a bench. The cat hopped out of the van, started across the road, and was promptly hit and killed by a taxi.
One Small Step for Cats
After the cat’s death, a CIA operative returned to the accident site and collected the spy’s remains. They didn't want the Soviets to get their hands on the audio equipment.
Project Acoustic Kitty was completely abandoned in 1967. Deploying agents that the CIA had little to no control over was deemed a phenomenally bad idea. The project was declared an utter failure.
Documents relating to Acoustic Kitty were released in 2001 following a Freedom of Information Act request by the National Security Archives, but remain partially censored. One report issued after the project was closed does offer a declassified pat on the back to the team that worked on the project. They were called “models for scientific pioneers” for proving that “cats can indeed be trained to move short distances.”
A true success for everyone but the cat.
For more on Acoustic Kitty, see Spycraft: The Secret History of the CIA’s Spytech’s and Emily Anthes’ blog, Wonderland.