Acoustic Kitty: the CIA’s Failed Attempt to Train Cats as Spies

Cats are remarkable creatures. Partnering with some of the greatest minds in the scientific community, cats have authored scientific papers, been converted into a telephone, and transformed into glow-in-the-dark creatures of the night.

It would seem that even cats have their limitations. They don’t make the best of spies. That, at least, was the conclusion of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) after its experiment to train cats as agents of electronic espionage.

“Acoustic Kitty” was the name of the CIA project of the 1960s. Under the direction of the Agency’s Directorate of Science & Technology, veterinary surgeons implanted a microphone and radio transmitter in the head of a cat. This was part of a grand scheme to train cats to conduct espionage against the Soviet Union.

“For its first official test… the cat wandered into the street, where it was promptly squashed by a taxi.

Victor Marchetti, a former CIA officer, said Project Acoustic Kitty cost about $20 million. The project was terminated in 1967. The closing memorandum (read it here) was declassified in 1983. It asserted the conclusion of CIA researchers that cats might be able to be trained to move short distances but 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.”

In her book, Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts, author Emily Anthes describes the inglorious conclusion to Operation Acoustic Kitty: “For its first official test, CIA staffers drove Acoustic Kitty to the park and tasked it with capturing the conversation of two men sitting on a bench… Instead, the cat wandered into the street, where it was promptly squashed by a taxi.”

Robert Wallace, former Director of the CIA’s Office of Techincal Service, disputed Anthes’ account. He asserted that “the equipment was taken out of the cat; the cat was re-sewn for a second time and lived a long and happy life afterward.”

Without disclosing the fate of the first acoustic kitty, the CIA’s closing memorandum concluded, “Our final examination of trained cats…convinced us that the program would not lend itself in a practical sense to our highly specialized needs.”

In other words, cats are not very trainable.

We could have told them that for far less than $20 million.

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