The CIA’s Attempt at Feline Espionage: Operation Acoustic Kitty
In the past we’ve written about some pretty bizarre and horrifying tactics the CIA tested in order to spy on the Soviets during the Cold War, but this one takes the cake by far. During the 1960s, someone at Langley had the brilliant idea to implant recording devices and antennas in cats, with the intention of training them to slip into the Soviet embassy and covertly record conversations. They gave this strange idea the not-so-subtle codename, Operation Acoustic Kitty.
If this program sounds absurd that’s because it was, and it ended in an even more ridiculous manner, after millions of dollars – and we mean millions – were invested in R&D. Those in charge of the program hoped to utilize the inquisitive nature of the feline species, but in the end, it was in fact curiosity that killed the cat — or maybe just sheer terror.
The exact details surrounding Operation Acoustic Kitty have been debated by members of the CIA’s Directorate of Science and Technology, but according to its then-director Robert Wallace, the program originally experimented on other animals, such as rats and ravens, using a tactic called passive concealment. There is even a YouTube video of Wallace casually discussing the use of dead rats as covert recording devices, while waving around a taxidermized rodent in front of an audience.
When the program shifted its focus to felines, it needed to figure out the most appropriate way to wire a kitty. There is, after all, more than one way to skin a cat…
After incising and implanting a power pack in the cat’s abdomen, a cord was run along the length of its spine, connecting wires to a recording device in the cochlea of its ear.
They then sent the cat on a training mission and supposedly had some brief successes. That was until the cat got hungry or… aroused. So, the agents decided to implant more wires to suppress the cat’s urges and keep it focused on the target at hand, creating a true cyborg kitty.
Once the poor tabby was electronically rigged, it was loaded into an unmarked van with surveillance equipment and driven across town. They let the cat out of the bag across the street from the target embassy hoping it would find its way inside.
The cat bolted across the street, making it no more than 10 feet before it was flattened by a city taxi. The CIA’s $20 million investment – which equates to nearly $160 million adjusted for inflation today – was destroyed in a matter of moments.
But according to Wallace, this embarrassing failure was not the reason the program was discontinued. Instead, he and his team realized the famous aphorism was true… what they were trying to do was impossible, it was like herding cats. Actually, that’s literally what it was.
The CIA documents state:
“Our final examination of trained cats convinced us that the program would not lend itself in a practical sense to our highly specialized needs.”
It goes on to conclude that cats can be trained, but due to environmental and security factors, using the technique in a real foreign situation was not practical. Essentially, they decided to develop a more concrete plan – it was time to stop pussyfooting around.
Another Failed CIA Project
So, who’s brilliant idea was it to use the most notoriously intractable domestic animal to spy on Soviet adversaries? That’s hard to say. But supposedly the impetus came from the fact that the target area was rife with feral cats. Agents assumed their feline spook could blend in with all of the strays, evading detection by the embassy’s security, or worse, cat fights.
And when it came to admitting to the project’s utter failure, it seems the cat had the CIA’s tongue until the early aughts when a FOIA request exposed many of the CIA’s Cold War espionage programs. Then in 2001, Jeffrey Richelson, an executive assistant to the CIA Director in the ‘60s published a book titled The Wizards of Langley, in which he discussed the embarrassing letdowns of Operation Acoustic Kitty.
“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,” he said.
Richelson also says he believes that even if the cat wasn’t instantly squashed by an oncoming taxi, the poor animal would have soon perished from the crude surgical implants. PETA would not have been pleased.
And while Project Acoustic Kitty wasn’t nearly as nefarious as MKUltra, Project Artichoke, and others, it was an insanely expensive waste of taxpayer dollars that would certainly cause an uproar today.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not still happening. DARPA has been working on similar projects involving robotic insects able to fly, swim, and crawl into small crevices and other generally inaccessible areas. Ostensibly, these insectoids will be used for disaster recovery, though if Acoustic Kitty has set any precedent, it would be a surprise if espionage wasn’t on the table.
Because when it comes to spying on allies and adversaries alike, the U.S. surveillance apparatus certainly considers itself to be the cat’s pajamas.
Sorry, no more cat puns.
The Reporter Who May Have Learned the Truth Behind JFK's Assassination
Few historical events have sparked as many conspiracy theories as the JFK assassination, but when one looks at the evidence regarding the Kennedys’ history with the country’s organized crime families, it’s hard not to see the mob’s culpability. At least that’s what best-selling author, researcher, and former criminal defense attorney Mark Shaw has detailed over the course of several books, including his most recent titled, “The Reporter Who Knew Too Much.”
The reporter Shaw is referring to is Dorothy Kilgallen, arguably the most famous female journalist of her era, known for a syndicated column in the New York Journal-American, a nationally broadcast CBS radio show listened to by millions, and her role as star panelist of the celebrity game show “What’s My Line?”
Kilgallen met an untimely death in 1965 while investigating a strong suspicion that members of the New Orleans mafia may have been behind JFK’s assassination. Fanning the flames of conspiracy further, Kilgallen’s reported cause of death — acute ethanol and barbiturate intoxication — was uncannily similar to that of Marilyn Monroe, whose alleged suicide has been questioned interminably.
According to Shaw’s research, Kilgallen was one of few people who connected Jack Ruby — the Dallas nightclub owner who murdered Lee Harvey Oswald — to Carlos Marcello, the “Godfather” of the New Orleans mafia. Knowing the Kennedy family’s complicated ties to various mob syndicates, Oswald’s history of living in New Orleans, and Ruby’s affiliations with the mob, Kilgallen followed her instinct. She also happened to be the sole reporter to interview Ruby at his trial, out of hundreds who were present.
In 1965, Kilgallen embarked on an investigative trip to Louisiana to test her hypothesis, bringing only a hairstylist along with her. However, she quickly told him to return to New York and not mention to anyone she was down there. Shaw says he believes she uncovered some damning evidence implicating Marcello’s involvement in the Kennedy assassination, which she quickly realized could cost her her life. Kilgallen returned to New York and planned a return trip to New Orleans to meet a confidential informant, but was found dead just weeks before she was supposed to leave. She described her plans to meet the informant on her second trip as “cloak and daggerish.”
The idea that the mafia was behind Kennedy’s assassination isn’t a new one. It was well known that the family’s patriarch, Joe P. Kennedy Sr. had a convoluted history with a number of well-known figures in organized crime. Kennedy Sr.’s business dealings in Chicago led to his acquaintance with famous mob boss Frank Costello, who claimed the two were involved in bootlegging operations during prohibition. Though Kennedy Sr. denied this connection, he continued to build his vast fortune through exclusive distribution rights for world-renowned brands of scotch and other imported liquors when prohibition ended.