Cats are mysterious, stealthy, curious, and arguably psychopathic. Perhaps then, it’s no surprise pet felines were once seen as the ideal material for a spy.
Back in the 1960s, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) spent millions of dollars and years of work developing a cyborg-kitten spy designed to bug the Soviets and covertly retrieve information. Unfortunately for the Americans, their dreams of a spy cat were prematurely dashed when their pet project was allegedly squashed by a passing taxi.
The story of the spy cat can be pieced together thanks to a bunch of declassified documents from the 1960s and other sources from the Cold War intelligence community. Codenamed “Operation Acoustic Kitty,” the project loosely involved the idea of implanting a microphone in the cat's ear canal and a small radio transmitter at the base of its skull, as per the 2013 book Frankenstein's Cats... by Emily Anthes (excerpt here). Fitted with these simple devices, the cat could be trained to sneak into Soviet embassies, or even the Kremlin, where it would record conservations and beam them back to the CIA agents.
The CIA documents also explain how they experimented with techniques to command the spy cat with auditory commands, effectively controlling the cat’s movement like a remote-controlled car. After all, as any cat owner can tell you, they are not the easiest of creatures to train.
“A lot of money was spent. 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,” said Victor Marchetti, a special assistant to the Deputy Director of the CIA in the 1960s, according to the 2001 book The Wizards of Langley.
He went on to explain that one of the first spy cats met an untimely death during one of their earliest real-world experiments: “Finally they’re ready. They took it out to a park and pointed it at a park bench and said, ‘Listen to 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!”
Marchetti later became an outspoken critic of the US intelligence community. He was known to advance some controversial and dubious ideas, some of which have been considered conspiracy theories, meaning his insights into the bizarre forrays of the CIA should be taken with some caution.
Indeed, CIA documents tell a slightly different story. A heavily-redacted report titled “Views on Trained Cats” suggests the project was somewhat of a success, but it was ultimately found to be of no use to the agency. It read: “We have satisfied ourselves it is indeed possible... This is in itself a remarkable achievement.”
However, it also notes: “Our final examination of trained cats.... for use in the… convinced us that the program would not lend itself in a practical way to our highly specialized needs.”
Millions of dollars were reportedly spent, but the dream of a cyborg spy cat was eventually binned. In retrospect, perhaps cats were not the best candidates to meddle in nuclear-armed geopolitical tensions.