The kids in my classroom don’t remember the Cold War, most of them having been born after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The only enemy they’ve ever known are a few tens of thousands of religious fanatics; they don’t remember the days when entire nation-states aimed nuclear missiles at one another in pursuit of foreign policy goals that extended past the 24-hour news cycle. This makes it hard to explain that the threat posed by the Soviet bloc was the type that could cause a country to do some pretty extreme things to “protect” itself – not that it rose to the sort of “terrorists made me do it” waterboarding that we see today, but back in the heady days of the Iron Curtain, for example, the thought of surgically implanting a live cat with eavesdropping equipment wasn’t considered outside the realm of ethical behavior.
Join me, if you will, in the Cave of the Moonbat, where tonight we’ll take a short romp through the CIA’s litter box of secrets. Among the “presents” we’ll unearth: a Frankensteinish feline, paranoia-induced stupidity not equaled until recent times, and $20 million turd of an idea.
When it was first organized in the late 1940s, the Central Intelligence Agency was not yet the dumping ground for ideological hacks we see today – back then, public servants were scouted at top Ivy League schools, rather than, say, Regent University School of Law, and this was especially true of the intelligence service. Like Buschco’s recruiting of flunkies from second-rate evangelical diploma mills, however, the brainy exclusivity of the Ivy-only approach sometimes worked against the CIA’s own best interests, and got the organization to do stupid stuff that a little bit of under-educated common sense would have deemed unworthy of even an attempt. Dozens – perhaps hundreds – of examples of this phenomenon are known to us through the Freedom of Information Act, and it’s possible that hundreds more will emerge as declassification dates pass and FOIA requests are submitted (and provided there aren’t any more suspicious fires in Dick Cheney’s office, of course).
Back Before Someone Thought of Outsourcing National Security…
The over-thinking that would someday result in elaborately stupid plots like this…
Knowing his fascination for scuba-diving off the coast of Cuba, the CIA at one time invested in a large volume of Caribbean molluscs. The idea was to find a shell big enough to contain a lethal quantity of explosives, which would then be painted in colours lurid and bright enough to attract Castro’s attention when he was underwater. Documents released under the Clinton administration confirm that this plan was considered but, like many others, did not make it far from the drawing-board. Another aborted plot related to Castro’s underwater activities was for a diving-suit to be prepared for him that would be infected with a fungus that would cause a chronic and debilitating skin disease.
…can be seen in some of the Agency’s founding documents, wherein the Bureaucratic Force is strong:
Scientific intelligence production in the CIA began with a Scientific Branch in the Office of Reports and Estimates. On December 31, 1948, the branch was merged with the Nuclear Energy Group of the Office of Special Operations to form the Office of Scientific Intelligence (OSI).
Memorandum for the Record, Subject: Responsibilities of the Office of Scientific Intelligence, November 29, 1951 (National Archives, CIA 1998 Release: RG 263, Box 209, Folder 3), via Science, Technology, and the CIA
By the early 1960s, the science and technology types had been given their own Directorate, and were apparently handed an awful lot of money to spend on whatever they fancied, be it giant clam-bombs or the lurid paint with which to anoint them. To give credit where credit is due, CIA scientists and engineers made some huge advances in the gathering of Signals Intelligence (SIGINT, the boring, computer-based sibling of HUMINT, or Human Intelligence, which is all the cloak-n’-dagger, covert ops stuff) over the years – we have their early work to thank for a key component in pacemakers, not to mention the ECHELON program and the ability to surreptitiously wiretap the U.S. population for no reason at all. If the silly movie I saw recently is any indication, ECHELON also gives rogue sects of the CIA complete control over the security networks (and sovereignty) of London, Madrid, Tangier, and New York, though perhaps there was a bit of poetic license involved.
Or maybe not: the history of espionage is one in which wild stories and bizarre plots are the norm, and the technology of spycraft is the sort you can only get when you tell brilliant people to be as devious and as unencumbered by morality as they can possibly be. It can be a lethal combination – especially, it turns out, if you happened to be a cat in a CIA laboratory in the mid-60s.
Weird Historical Sidenote: Speaking of poetic license, this would be a good place to acknowledge that the CIA was unintentionally (?) responsible for a large part of the counterculture’s long, strange trip in the 1960s through the Agency’s LSD experiments as part of the MK-Ultra Project, but the acid stories will have to wait – this diary is about unfortunate cats in labs. Perhaps not coincidentally, there was at least one of those involved in the MK-Ultra experiments: a guy named Frank Olson committed suicide (?) three days after being secretly dosed by CIA human-experimenters in 1953.
We Are the Borg; You Will Be Assimilated
If they were willing to secretly test mind-altering drugs on human subjects (not to mention their own colleagues) in the early 1950s, one can imagine the level of depravity CIA scientists were capable of inflicting upon animals a decade later. Sometime around 1967, somebody at the Directorate of Science and Technology hit upon the idea of turning an ordinary housecat into a sophisticated eavesdropping device through a crude form of Borg assimilation. Victor Marchetti, quoted as a “former CIA officer” in the London Telegraph, described the nuts & bolts of Project 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.”
this source contains a citation of this story from: John Ranelagh, The Agency: The Rise and Decline of the CIA, From Wild Bill Donovan to William Casey (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986), p. 208.
That’ll teach that stupid cat to get hungry. The CIA scientists spent quite a bit of time testing their kitty-bug under controlled conditions, even getting to the point where they could “control its movements over short distances,” presumably by zapping little electrodes implanted in the brain. No doubt this resulted in the cat having all the sinewy grace of Frankenstein’s monster. After spending somewhere in the neighborhood of $15-20 million on their unholy creation, they were finally ready to take it out for what we in the field of education call “real-world application.”
Acoustic Kitty’s target was always intended to be a small park next to the Soviet compound on Wisconsin Avenue in Washington. Alert CIA agents had noticed that sometimes the Rooskies would meet there and do suspicious spy-looking stuff, but they themselves were unable to infiltrate the area without the Commies spotting them. The cybernetic cat was meant to appear as a stray, and thus – the thinking went – would be able to wander about the park, eavesdropping away, in a manner that HUMINT types simply couldn’t.
As to what happened during Acoustic Kitty’s first field test, I’ll yield again to Vincent Marchetti’s wry voice:
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!” … 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!
source (see Marchetti citation note above)
Project Acoustic Kitty came to an inglorious end an hour or so later, when a CIA guy came out with a shovel and bucket and scraped up the fifteen million dollar piece of roadkill. The whole episode was shelved after that, and little remains in the way of documentation – hardly surprising, since it wasn’t exactly a career-maker. This heavily-redacted document (pdf) is entitled “Views on Trained Cats (red.) for (red.) Use,” and mournfully concludes that although it may someday be feasible to turn living animals into robotic slaves, the technology eluded them in 1967. Still, the author of the document does try to give a shout-out to the man responsible for the science behind Acoustic Kitty, though regrettably, the guy’s name has been lost to history through the agency of the redactor’s pen:
3. The work done on this problem over the years reflects great credit upon the personnel who guided it, particularly (REDACTED) whose energy and imagination could be models for scientific pioneers.
While obscurity is an apt enough legacy for this abomination’s progenitor, it is an unfortunate truth that the CIA, the military, and various and sundry defense “contractors” have not given up on the idea of creating sharks with frickin’ laser beams – that the anti-veterinarians behind Acoustic Kitty have indeed inspired a new generation of twisted, aberrant scientists to pursue their diabolical work. Of late, there have even been reports of breakthroughs in humanity’s efforts to learn how to steer dogfish while they’re still alive and swimming – and no doubt those intelligent, mine-hunting dolphins stand ready to make the ultimate sacrifice for Preznit and country, should the occasion demand.
See? – told you this one would be short. In truth, your resident historiorantologist didn’t have much time to assemble a properly lengthy HfK this week (though the skiing was grand!), and I’m a half hour past my self-imposed deadline as I type this, so I guess it’s time to just shut up and get this posted. Best wishes to all for a Happy New Year!