The CIA worked on a surveillance cat project called Acoustic Kitty during the 1960s.
They made a monstrosity
That’s actual cats surgically implanted with microphones and radio transmitters—designed to slip by security and eavesdrop on foreign diplomats.
Creating a cyborg cat wasn’t easy in an era of room-sized computers.
According to Spycraft: The Secret History of the CIA’s Spytechs, an adult gray-and-white female cat was selected as the first prototype.
The feline transmitter was implanted with a wire running from her inner ear to a battery and instrument cluster implanted in her rib cage.
“They slit the cat open, put batteries in him, wired him up,” said Victor Marchetti, who was an executive assistant to the director of the CIA in the 1960s, according to Jeffrey Richelson’s book, The Wizards of Langley. “The tail was used as an antenna. They made a monstrosity.”
Ultrasonic sound directed the cat —left, right, straight ahead.
One audio engineer had to sit down for a moment during the equipment installation but the hour-long operation went smoothly after that.
In their book Spycraft, the CIA’s Wallace and co-author H. Keith Melton write that the agency was targeting an Asian head of state for surveillance, and that “during the target’s long strategy sessions with his aides, cats wandered in and out of the meeting area.”
Perfect for an undercover cat.
Bugs of all kinds
It’s not (quite) as crazy as it sounds.
Even bugs – the beasties kind – were considered as possible spy material.
A 1972 report “The Use of Arthropods as Personnel Detectors,” summarizes research on the possibility of exploiting the “sensory capabilities of insects for the detection of people.”
Scientists ruled out lice because “in a preliminary test they simply crawled about at random”.
The saw some promise in the mosquito Anopheles quadrimaculatus, which “is normally at rest and will fly at the approach of a host,” and so might be used “to detect the approach of people during darkness.
Unlike a mechanical bugging device, a cat’s ear has a cochlea, as does a human ear, that can filter out irrelevant noise.
Mechanical bugs can produce more squeaking than leaking.
Take the case of a bug placed in the couch of a Chinese diplomat.
The squeaking noise drowned out conversation, not only during his persistent sexual adventures but when visitors simply sat.
“We found that we could condition the cat to listen to voices,” Bob Bailey, CIA animal trainer, told Smithsonian Magazine.
“We have no idea how we did it. But…we found that the cat would more and more listen to people’s voices, and listen less to other things.”
Outside the lab, though, the cat acted … like a cat.
She wandered off when she got bored, distracted, or hungry.
The CIA implanted a device to suppress the cat’s appetite, bringing the cost of Acoustic Kitty up to $20 million.
Acoustic Kitty First Mission
Acoustic Kitty was ready for her first mission.
CIA agents released their rookie agent from the back of a nondescript van.
She dashed off toward the embassy, making it all of 10 feet before she was struck by a passing taxi and killed.
“There they were, sitting in the van,” Marchetti recalled, “and the cat was dead.”
An undated agency memo that was heavily redacted apparently quashed the project:
“[deleted] views on trained cats [deleted] for [deleted] use”
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.
Robert Wallace, who headed the CIA’s Office of Technical Services in the 1990s, disagrees with this version.
“It was a serious project,” he says. “The acoustic kitty was not killed by getting run over by a taxicab.”
He claims that the cat was picked up to avoid her falling into the wrong hands.
Her equipment was removed.
Hopefully, Acoustic Kitty went back to completing ignoring humans and lived a long and happy life.
Siobhan O’Shea is a freelance writer. She writes about pretty much everything but especially likes to bring readers’ attention to new tech, marketing, human behavior, and other oddities.