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Project Acoustic Kitty

Why did the cat cross the road? To spy on the USSR! If you didn’t laugh, don’t feel bad – the joke doesn’t make any sense. It made even less sense during the Cold War, when the CIA tried to develop a way to get cats to spy on the Soviets. (Ahhhh, our hard-earned tax dollars at work.)

Mission Implausible

In the 1960s the CIA was looking for a way to spy on Russian diplomats strolling through the park across the street from the Soviet compound in Washington, D.C. With today’s electronics and eavesdropping equipment that might not be too big a challenge, but 40 years ago things were different: Microphones weren’t nearly as sophisticated as they are today, and the ones that were small enough to be hidden in a park bench or drilled into the trunk of a tree were especially bad. Unless the diplomats sat or stood right next to the microphone and happened to talk directly into it, the tiny mikes couldn’t filter our nearby noises – children playing, leaves rustling, park benches squeaking – so that their conversations could be clearly understood. And since the diplomats moved all around the park, even if the microphones had been effective there would have had to have been multiple units installed all over the park. How could that have been done without attracting the attention of the Soviet compound right across the street? Another way had to be found.

Thinking Outside the (Litter) Box

At some point in the 1960’s some clever scientist – we’ll probably never know who, since the details of the program are still a closely guarded secret – decided to see if they could wire up common house cats to become mobile electronic listening devices. The project was code-named “Acoustic Kitty.” (No we’re not kidding.)

CIA veterinarians selected a single cat and performed extensive surgery on it, inserting a microphone, a transmitter, and batteries underneath its skin, and running a wire antenna down the length of the cat’s tail. Have you ever been able to teach a cat to do a trick? Neither has Uncle John, but somehow the CIA figured out how to do that, too. The trained Acoustic Kitty to approach selected individuals on command and listen for and seek out human conversation. The idea was that if the cat got close enough to the diplomats that it could hear their conversations clearly, the microphone would pick it up, too. If the suspects moved around the park, the cat could follow without attracting suspicion. Who would guess that the cat was working for the CIA?

The possibilities must have seemed endless. Why stop with one cat in a Washington, D.C. park? It might be just a matter of time before dozens of Acoustic Kitties were perched on windowsills all over Washington - perhaps even in the Kremlin.

Secret Agent Cat

The training and testing went well, except for one hitch: When Acoustic Kitty got hungry, it wandered off in search of something to eat. The CIA fixed that problem by implanting a device to suppress the cat’s appetite.

Finally, everything was ready for a trial run: Acoustic Kitty was bundled into a spy van and driven to the park across the street from the Soviet compound. When some Soviet diplomats were spotted heading into the park, the CIA agents let the cat out of the van and … SPLAT! Before it could even cross the street, Acoustic Kitty was run over by a taxi and killed.

Back to the Drawing Board

Five years of research and development had gone into the program; so had $14 million of taxpayer’s money. All we have to show for it is the world’s most expensive road kill – when Acoustic Kitty died, the project died with it, written off by the CIA as a total loss. (You’d never know it from reading the handful of documents about it that have been declassified, though: one document released in 1983 praised the design team, claiming their “energy and imagination could be models for scientific pioneers.”)

To this day, very little is known about Project Acoustic Kitty; most of the details are still classified, and the CIA won’t say why – their reasons are under wraps, too. Is it because cat-related espionage programs are still under way? Probably not. The most likely reason for all the secrecy, say intelligence experts: “To avoid further embarrassment.”

The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader