The CIA allegedly used electronic brain stimulation on a test cat in the 1960s.
Everyone knows cats cannot be trained. They do their own thing, regardless of what their “owners” might want. So it always has been and so it always will be.
But the CIA in the 1960s liked to believe it could do the impossible.
The result, according to one critic of the spy agency, was a “monstrosity.”
The CIA’s foremost goal at the time was to extract valuable secret information from the Soviet Union. Listening devices offered the most straightforward way to do this, but the technology wasn’t yet up to the task.
The problem: “These bugs picked up everything,” writes Vince Houghton in his entertaining new book “Nuking the Moon: And Other Intelligence Schemes and Military Plots Left on the Drawing Board.” Meaning the various unavoidable noises on the scene of a typical secret meeting -- the chirping of birds, passing traffic, etc. -- often obscured the conversation the listening device was supposed to capture, rendering the recording useless.
The CIA’s brightest minds -- scientists in its Technical Services Division -- came up with a surprising solution: Project Acoustic Kitty. Yes, that was the official name.
It was such an odd idea -- so obviously doomed to fail, so representative of the desperate measures employed at the height of the Cold War -- that it serves as the kickoff story in “Nuking the Moon.”
Houghton, the curator of the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., unearthed once-classified government files that hold the tales of bold military and spy proposals that, for very good reason, were never put into action. “For every plan as good as D-Day,” his book states, “there’s a scheme to strap bombs to bats or dig a spy tunnel underneath the Soviet embassy.”
And train cats.
The Acoustic Kitty idea did have some logic behind it. Cats go wherever they want, hopping fences, slipping through doors. They aren’t intimidated by armed guards. No one -- not even paranoid bureaucrats in authoritarian regimes -- would think anything was amiss if an orange tabby wandered by during a secret meeting.
Thus the CIA’s Technical Services Division implanted an audio transmitter into a test cat, a.k.a., Acoustic Kitty. A tiny microphone sat in her ear.
The implantation -- groundbreaking animal surgery for the time -- worked. The listening device and the cat were operational.
"Nuking the Moon"
"Nuking the Moon"
But then the scientists tried to run Acoustic Kitty through her paces. Several weeks of training proved frustrating. They just couldn’t get the cat to “move consistently according to its mission,” Houghton writes.
But the late Victor Marchetti, a CIA officer in the 1950s and ’60s who later became a critic of the agency (he’s the one who called Project Acoustic Kitty a “monstrosity”), said testing actually was pretty promising -- thanks to a breakthrough in electronic brain stimulation.
The Technical Services Division, it seems, successfully operated on the cat and trained it to go to specific destinations and sit there for a while before moving on. Contemporaneous CIA documentation heralded the work as a “remarkable scientific achievement.”
Except the training and brain stimulation went out the window whenever the cat got hungry.
“Obviously, the CIA couldn’t have its invention skipping away in the middle of a mission to look for some Meow Mix,” Houghton writes, “so the vets and techs went back in and rejiggered Acoustic Kitty’s wiring, turning off its natural instinct to seek sustenance.”
That done, the spy nerds allegedly took the cat out on the street for a final dry run. The outcome, according to Marchetti: Acoustic Kitty was courageous and determined and patriotic -- and died in the line of duty.
We don’t know exactly what happened, or even if Marchetti, angry at his former employer, invented his version of our heroic cat’s final chapter. Because, even all these years later, the Deep State doesn’t want to give up all its secrets. Here’s the title of the CIA’s Project Acoustic Kitty report:
“[Redacted] Views on Trained Cats [Redacted] for [Redacted] Use.”