The Acoustic Kitty History Thread

During the Cold War, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) engaged in a variety of morally, ethically and intellectually dubious projects. Some were blatantly illegal, from their involvement in assassination plots to domestic espionage programs like Operation CHAOS; others were outrageous, like the “mind control” experiments known as MKULTRA. Then there’s ACOUSTIC KITTY, perhaps the most absurd CIA operation that’s yet been uncovered: the attempt to create a master spy from an ordinary house cat.

In theory, the idea makes sense. Using animals in espionage is a time-honored idea, and the CIA experienced success using birds, dogs and other trainable creatures to eavesdrop, plant bugs and retrieve sensitive documents. It stood to reason that a cat – a creature not only commonplace enough to not attract notice, but silent, crafty and fast – might prove a useful eavesdropper. Except, as any cat owner can attest, they are nearly impossible to train, let alone to entrust with a secret mission. And, of course, they aren’t capable of understanding human speech, and reporting back to their handlers would likely result in demands for treats rather than disclosing a sensitive Soviet arms deal.

Nonetheless, beginning in 1962 the CIA’s Directorate of Science and Technology decided to make ACOUSTIC KITTY a reality. Their subject was apparently a gray-and-white female cat (one internet source gives her name as “Peanut,” but I can’t find verification for this in published accounts) whose handlers installed a transmitter in her chest, a microphone in her head (the cat’s sensitive ears used to filter out unwanted background noise), and a wire running through her body to the tail as an antenna. According to one account, ACOUSTIC KITTY even underwent a second surgery in an attempt to circumvent hunger and sexual instincts – in short, she became a cat cyborg.

cat gray

Bob Bailey, a CIA animal behaviorist (whose signal achievement was training dolphins to detect submarines), recounted that this treatment showed some results. “We found that we could condition the cat to listen to voices. We have no idea how we did it. But…we found that the cat would more and more listen to people’s voices, and listen less to other things.” He even commissioned Robin Michelson, co-inventor of the cochlear implant, to improve ACOUSTIC KITTY’s hearing (and sensitivity to direction) with a specially-created microphone to fit inside the cat’s ear.

Half-robot though she might have become, ACOUSTIC KITTY remained all cat. Throughout her training she fell asleep, wandered away from her trainers when bored, frequently demanded food, and generally proved non-responsive to instructions. Nonetheless, in 1967 the CIA decided she was sufficiently trained (or, equally likely, that they’d sunk enough time and energy into this project) to run a trial. Two operatives in an unmarked van drove out to Wisconsin Avenue, across from the Soviet Embassy, and unleashed ACOUSTIC KITTY to spy on two men chatting on a bench by the street.

acoustic

Two accounts of her mission exist. The most commonly repeated one comes from Victor Marchetti, a former aide to Richard Helms, who claimed that ACOUSTIC KITTY ambled into the street, only to be immediately flattened by a taxi. Marchetti was deeply disillusioned with the Agency and wrote The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence, a 1974 expose of covert operations which helped trigger the Church Committee’s investigations, so he may have embellished the tale to reflect badly (even worse?) on the CIA. Another report claims that ACOUSTIC KITTY simply wandered off and had to be retrieved by her embarrassed handlers. She was retired from Agency work after a few more unsuccessful tests and lived a happy cyborg life.

Whichever version one believes, the CIA retired ACOUSTIC KITTY in 1967, forced to conclude that “the program would not lend itself in a practical sense to our highly specialized needs.” Still, the official Agency report boasted that “the work done on this problem over the years reflects great credit on the personnel who guided it . . . whose energy and imagination could be models for scientific pioneers.” This seems a polite way to frame wasting five years and $20 million on turning a cat into a disobedient, easily-squished robot.