Operation Acoustic Kitty: Not the CIA’s Most Purrfect Plan
This isn’t exactly what the CIA had in mind when it launched Operation Acoustic Kitty in 1961, but this cat, George, is doing his part to keep a watchful eye on the city in 1957. Source: (Photo by Dennis Rowe/BIPs/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
The Cold War era brought out the paranoia in many people, but none more so than the CIA. The Central Intelligence Agency would stop at nothing to learn Soviet secrets. To accomplish this goal, the CIA developed all sorts of wacky schemes but the craziest of them all may have been Operation Acoustic Kitty, the CIA’s plan to train cats to spy on the Soviets. Yes, you read that right…the CIA actually thought they could train cats!
The idea behind Acoustic Kitty was that cats wander in and out and occasionally – only on their own terms – snuggle on a person’s lap. Cats are cute, fluffy, and seemingly innocent…the purrrfect cover for a spy. No one would suspect that the meowing fur ball asleep in the corner was actually listening in on conversations and reporting back to the CIA.
The Military Used Dogs. Why Not Cats?
Dogs have long been used by militaries of different countries to aid in assignments. Dogs can sniff out bombs, find enemy snipers, serve as guard dogs, carry supplies, and track the enemy. Plus dogs are loyal and obedient. Cats, on the other hand, have none of the innate skills that dogs have and are defiantly disobedient. They have no feelings of loyalty, are easily bored, prone to prolonged naps, and fiercely independent. Yet, for some reason, the CIA thought they would whip cats into shape and turn them into lean, mean, spying machines.
Operation Acoustic Kitty…the Premise
Declassified CIA documents tell us that the CIA worked closely with audio engineers and veterinarians to develop a tiny, less than one inch long, radio transmitter. The transmitter was surgically implanted into to the cat at the base of its skull. A minute microphone was implanted in the cat’s ear canal and a long, thin antenna was woven along the cat’s spine. The antenna ran the length of the cat’s body, from the head to the tail. One of the biggest challenges was concealing the battery pack. The batteries had to be small enough to be undetected which meant that they didn’t last long. The cats wouldn’t be able to record long conversations.
It took Five Years to Develop Acoustic Kitty
Technological devices in the sixties were big, bulky, and cumbersome. It took the CIA and their team of audio engineers more than five years to develop and build audio receivers and recording devices that were small and light enough for the feline spies. Sadly, many cats were used as guinea pigs. They were operated on and electronic equipment was planted into their bodies, all while the engineers were tweaking their inventions. By 1966, Operation Acoustic Kitty was ready to roll.
The Trial Run of Operation Acoustic Kitty Ended in Cat-Astrophe
Finally, in 1966, the team behind Operation Acoustic Kitty was ready to test their project in a real-world setting. A van loaded with surveillance equipment parked discreetly across the street from a park where two men sat chatting on a park bench. The plan was to release the wired up spy cat and allow it to mosey over to the gentleman in order to casually transmit their conversation. The van door opened and out jumped the kitty…right in the path of an oncoming taxi cab! The gravely injured cat was scooped up and rushed back to the Acoustic Kitty headquarters. After all, they couldn’t risk anyone seeing the electronic equipment protruding from the animal’s innards. One report says that the spy cat recovered from her injuries and the veterinarian removed its spy equipment so it could go on to live out its remaining eight lives as a civilian cat.
The Taxi Driver was Investigated
When the spy cat was hit by the taxi, the CIA immediately worried that the animal’s cover had been blown and that taxi driver was really a Soviet assassin. But their investigation showed that the driver of the taxi was just an innocent civilian who simply didn’t see the cat.
Operation Acoustic Kitty Cost $20 Million…and was a Dismal Failure
Operation Acoustic Kitty was closed down in 1967. After six years and nearly $20 million, the program failed to yield any results. While the humans did their part by developing effective audio devices that were small enough to hide inside a cat, the cats failed to do their share to make Operation Acoustic Kitty a success. The cats proved that they could not be trained…they wandered off in different directions, chased butterflies, hid, napped, and licked themselves. When they were given a command, they stared defiantly at their handlers, yawned, and simply walked away. In short, they behaved just like cats. Although Operation Acoustic Kitty was shuttered, the CIA didn’t totally abandon the idea of using trained animals for espionage. They just set their sights on animals that are more cooperative, like dolphins, birds, and dogs.