For a government agency, the CIA isn’t afraid to think outside the box. This was especially true during the Cold War era, when there were a number of odd and often morally questionable programs that got funding in the name of national security. Whether it was LSD mind control, Castro assassination plots or the Bay of Pigs, declassified CIA documents are a treasure trove of craziness. “Operation Acoustic Kitty” is a perfect example of this. Both odd and morally questionable, in the 1960s, the CIA surgically implanted audio recording equipment into a cat with plans to use it to spy on the Russians. This is the story of one of the more comical wastes of taxpayer money by the federal government.
The CIA’s Operation Acoustic Kitty was one of the more imaginative spying operations that America’s main intelligence agency dreamed up during the Cold War. CIA documents and other sources have revealed that the agency made attempts at using multiple animals for espionage, including rodents, birds and cats. Despite the fact that cats are notoriously difficult to train, the CIA thought that their propensity for prowling around while stealthily searching nooks and crannies for prey would make them excellent spies. The idea was to surgically implant cats with audio-recording equipment and then train them to follow audio cues that would lead them to pick up conversations among Soviet agents.
While creating a spy cat today would likely be very minimally invasive given the shrinking size of everything tech, in the 1960s, that was not the case. Rather than just implanting a small, battery-powered recording and transmitting device under the cat’s skin and sewing him up, like might be done today, the CIA had to create an abominable Franken-kitty. In a procedure which lasted multiple hours, a surgeon implanted the CIA’s cat with a microphone in its ear canal, which was wired to a transmitter, and a power supply attached to the base of its skull. They then placed an antenna along the length of the cat’s spine all the way to its tail. Supposedly, the hardware worked in a lab setting, and after $20 million in expenditures (about $160 million in today’s money), Acoustic Kitty was ready to hit the road.
The first field expedition for the $20 million feline was a mission to spy on two Russian officials sitting on a park bench outside the Soviet embassy in Washington D.C. CIA operatives dropped the cat off close by, but far enough away not to be seen. They watched with much anticipation as the cat began to approach its Soviet targets, only for it to be distracted and then head the opposite way. The feline then ran into the street and was struck dead by a taxi. Even though CIA scientists got the surgically implanted audio equipment to work and they could control the cat’s movements in a lab setting, the field proved too distracting. Everyone knows that cats have minds of their own, and the sights, sounds and various other stimuli in a public park were too much for a trainer to account for and manage.
After this disaster, Operation Acoustic Kitty was declared a total loss and scrapped. The CIA, however, has not given up on training animals for various purposes. In fact, recent reports hint at insects that can be fitted with recording devices and controlled remotely. So, be careful about what you say around mosquitoes and dragonflies that appear to loiter in your presence for no apparent reason. And whatever you do, don’t swat them—those might be your hard-earned tax dollars at work!