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Damn Interesting - Operation Acoustic Kitty

This is a real thing that really happened.  Honestly.  Written for Damn Interesting  by Gregory Bjerg.

At the height of the Cold War, the US Central Intelligence Agency was willing to try just about anything to gain an advantage over the dreaded Communists. The agency considered using exploding cigars or seashells to remove Cuban leader Fidel Castro; they employed psychics to attempt “remote viewing” of Russian military secrets; and the CIA even put the Soviets on the business ends of clairvoyant minds to attempt mind-control.

One of the CIA’s most bizarre Cold War efforts was Operation Acoustic Kitty. In declassified documents from the CIA’s super-secret Science and Technology Directorate, it was revealed that some Cold-War-era cats were surgically altered to become sophisticated bugging devices. The idea was that the cats would eavesdrop on Soviet conversations from park benches, windowsills and garbage containers. The cat was meant to just stroll up to the sensitive conversations, completely unnoticed. The clandestine cat’s electrical internals would then capture and relay the audio to awaiting agents.

The project was funded and work began in 1961. Former CIA officer Victor Marchetti recounts the story of the Acoustic Kitty:

“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. 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!”

After several surgeries and intensive training, the cyborg cat was ready for its first field test. The CIA drove the cat to a Soviet compound on Wisconsin Avenue in Washington, D.C., and let him out of a parked van across the street. The cat ambled into the road, and was struck by a taxi almost immediately. Five years of effort and over $15 million in spending were reduced to roadkill in an instant. Shorty after its demise a CIA operative returned to the accident site and put the cat’s remains into a container to prevent the Soviets from getting their paws on the sensitive and expensive listening devices.

Operation Acoustic Kitty was completely abandoned in 1967, and declared an unadulterated failure. Possibly due to their embarrassing nature, the documents describing Acoustic Kitty remain partially censored even today. But one document does praise the Acoustic Kitty team for their efforts:

“The work done on this problem over the years reflects great credit on the personnel who guided it, particularly (censored), whose energy and imagination could be models for scientific pioneers.”

While the memo says that the use of trained cats is possible, it also says that “the environmental and security factors in using this technique in a real foreign situation force us to conclude that for our (intelligence) purposes, it would not be practical.”