Information is the most important resource of any government. Overhearing an enemy conversation can reveal plans of attack or hidden weaknesses, potentially saving thousands of lives. Today we have sophisticated satellites and remote drones. During the Cold War, America had to be a little more creative. Enter Project Acoustic Kitty.
Human operatives needed years of training to appear inconspicuous. Microphone bugs needed someone to install them. Both had their weaknesses. But during the 1960’s the CIA wasn’t the supertech spy agency commonly depicted in Hollywood movies. In fact it more resembled The Men Who Stare at Goats more than James Bond. Operatives were experimenting with LSD (Project MKULTRA), psychic powers (the First Earth Battalion), and other outlandish ideas. And someone, somewhere along the line, hit upon the idea to solve the eavesdropping problem with cats.
The idea was to surgically alter the cat, adding microphones to its ear canals. Nobody would suspect a cat of eavesdropping on them. A cat can look at a king, right? Anyways, as Victor Marchetti, a former special assistant to the Director of the CIA said:
“they slit the cat open, put batteries in him, wired him up. The tail was used as an antenna. They made a monstrosity. They tested him and tested him. They found he would walk off the job when he got hungry, so they put another wire in to override that.”
The cat was also rigorously trained to follow operative instructions, like where to go and when to leave. It didn’t exactly go as planned since the cat would often ignore orders if it was distracted. Implants were added to the brain to suppress appetite and sexual desire during missions. After five years and $20,000,000, the CIA felt reasonable comfortable sending the cat out for a test run. They chose a grey and white female, pointed her towards the Soviet Embassy in Washington DC and, as, Marchetti continues:
“Finally, they’re ready. They took it out to a park bench and said “Listen to those two guys. Don’t listen to anything else – not the birds, no cat or dog – just those two guys!” … They put him out of the van, and a taxi comes and runs him over. There they were, sitting in the van with all those dials, and the cat was dead!”
The project ignominiously closed almost immediately afterwards. A final memorandum, released online in 2001, thanks the researchers for their efforts and the discovery that cats could be “trained to move short distances”, but concludes that the entire project simply was not practical enough to work. This was seemingly the end of the US using cats as spies.
(Although, this isn’t to say that other plans haven’t been considered for animal-based espionage. Notably, the British agency MI5 had a plan in the 70’s to use gerbils to catch spies and terrorists by sniffing them out as they exited planes. These kind of experiments seem to be a reoccurring idea.)