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Cat in box

Acoustic Kitty: The CIA's spycat program

Over the years, the Central Intelligence Agency really has managed to come up with some harebrained schemes. In fact, if any of them were ever to feature in a movie, the public would probably dismiss them as being too unbelievable to give credence to. Just think about all the bizarre ways they tried to assassinate Fidel Castro for instance, or the millions of dollars they poured into researching psychics and remote viewing.

They seemed to have a near-limitless budget, and during the height of the Cold War, any move that would ostensibly help bring down the Kremlin was given the go-ahead without question. They even funded an attack on Cuba in 1961 - the infamous Bay of Pigs invasion - by channelling money into revolutionary mercenary groups. That plan was an unmitigated failure; so it was back to the drawing board for America's spies. But the CIA wasn't just recruiting humans during this time. They were also drafting in cats to assist in one of the weirdest spy programs of all time: Operation Acoustic Kitty.

A white house cat. Credit: Getty

It sounds like the premise of a pet-lover's version of James Bond, but I promise you: it really happened. Back in the 60s, the west was looking for anything that would give them an advantage over the USSR, and they were obsessed with the concept of surveillance. Anything that would help them listen in on the Soviets and assist them in acquiring valuable intel was much appreciated.

The CIA wanted to plant a wiretap in the Soviet Embassy in Washington DC, but were concerned that sending a human agent would be too conspicuous. A cat on the other hand would be totally innocuous, was agile enough to get into the building and stealthy enough to avoid detection - and it was unlikely that the Russians in the building would ever suspect an innocent-looking cat of espionage. Acoustic Kitty was born.

In a nutshell, the program would have involved cybernetically-augmented cats, who could have had surgery in order to insert microphones and transmitters in their body. These microphones would have been sophisticated enough to record human voices even while embedded under the cat's skin. A suitable cat (who was not named in the declassified documents) was chosen for the mission, sedated and forced to undergo an hour-long surgical procedure.

A vet implanted a microphone in the cat's ear canal and a tiny radio transmitter at the base of its skull. A thin wire ran between the microphone and the transmitter under the fur. Animal behaviourists noted that the cat was fully functional and not inconvenienced by the procedure, and mission control began preparing its furry agent for their first recon.

Victor Marchetti, former executive assistant to the Director of the CIA, was interviewed by British documentary-maker Adam Curtis on the subject of the project, and stated that the cats were difficult to control and that scientists had trouble keeping the animals focused on their objectives: "The cat that was used in this experiment had to be cut open and had a power pack placed inside its abdomen. Wires would run up to its ear to its cochlea, wires to its brain to determine whether it was hungry or sexually-aroused, and wire to override these urges."

Eventually, after months of testing and planning, the cat was considered to be ready for action. A disguised transit van, which contained high-tech listening equipment, was driven to the outskirts of the Soviet compound on Wisconsin Avenue. The cat special agent was prepped. The mission: to eavesdrop on two men in a park outside the Soviet compound, thus transmitting state secrets to the CIA without the Kremlin's knowledge. If the audacious plan succeeded, then the project would recoup its inflated budget several times over. The cat was released. At first, everything seemed to be going according to plan. The kitty made a beeline in the direction of the compound - and ran right across the road...

It was promptly hit by a speeding taxi cab. It was killed instantly. The humiliated surveillance team decided to cut their losses and call it quits. The whole project had cost American taxpayers $25 million.

A ginger house cat. Credit: Getty

In 2001, documents requested under the Freedom of Information Act by Jeffrey Richelson, senior fellow at the national security archive in Washington, revealed a memo dated 1967 entitled "Views of Trained Cats" which grimly states: "our final examination of trained cats ... convinced us that the program would not lend itself in a practical sense to our highly specialised needs. The environmental and security factors in using this technique in a real foreign situation force us to conclude that, for our purposes, it would not be practical. The work done on this problem over the years reflects great credit to the personnel who guided it ... whose energy and imagination could be models for scientific pioneers."

It's a great shame that the eavesdropping moggy died a hero in the line of duty, but maybe it's for the best. I for one think that it would nice if we could keep innocent cats out of human conflicts. War, even cold ones, already kill enough humans in the world. At least the failure of Acoustic kitty managed to spare other cats from being experimented on.