Acoustic Kitty

Part 4 of 5 in the series Biotech

Science has given us a whole new toolbox for tinkering with life, and we have the power to modify animals in profound new ways. — Frankenstein’s Cat (2013)

“Animals have been used in war for a long time: ever since we learned that sitting on a horse was faster than running,” writes Andrew Handley for the ListVerse.com website.1

“From cockroaches to cats, dogs, sea lions and even bats, military chiefs will try almost any animal species to give themselves the edge in combat and espionage situations,” notes Chris Parsons for Yahoo News.2

“In the 1960s, the Central Intelligence Agency recruited an unusual field agent: a cat,” writes Emily Anthes of the once top secret project to create a cybernetic spy in Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts.3

“Animals as well as technology played starring roles in the quest to prove that any target could be a ‘hit,'” notes Robert Wallace and H. Keith Melton in Spycraft: The Secret History of the CIA’s Spytechs, from Communism to Al-Qaeda:

When CIA operatives sought a means to penetrate the private meetings of an Asian head of state [in Washington, D.C.4], reports reached Headquarters that during the target’s long strategy sessions with his aides, cats wandered in and out of the meeting area. Feral cats were common to the region and generally ignored.… From the beginning, the techs recognized that the concept, undertaken jointly between OTS and the Office of Research and Development, fell into the high-risk category. At the time, embedding electronics inside animals or people was not a routine medical procedure.5

Acoustic Kitty x-ray

Anthes describes the surgery performed on the animal:

In an hour-long procedure, a veterinary surgeon transformed the furry [female6] feline into an elite spy, implanting a microphone in her ear canal and a small radio transmitter at the base of her skull, and weaving a thin wire antenna into her long gray and white fur. This was Operation Acoustic Kitty, a top-secret plan [which took five years to design7] to turn a cat into a living, walking surveillance machine. The leaders of the project hoped that by training the feline to go sit near foreign officials, they could eavesdrop on private conversations.8

Jeffrey T. Richelson in The Wizards Of Langley: Inside The Cia’s Directorate Of Science And Technology points out that “Cats and dogs did not have the option of volunteering”:

Victor Marchetti, who served as executive assistant to the deputy DCI during the late 1960s, recalled…the project was “more than just a goofy operation.”… The problem with the microphones of the day was that they picked up all the sound in a room – from voices to tinkling glasses – often producing recordings in which conversation could not be filtered out from the other noises. A bug placed in the couch of a Chinese diplomat in France proved ineffective because of the squeaking noises that drowned out conversations, not only when the diplomat was using it for his frequent sexual escapades but when visitors were simply sitting [Interview with Victor Marchetti, October 12, 1999].9

Acoustic Kitty
Acoustic Kitty, in Wallace and Melton, Spycraft
 
Backyard Brains spiker box
Backyard Brains on Amazon.com
Neural SpikerBox
Human Muscle SpikerBox

“Working with their prime audio equipment contractor, the techs produced a three-quarter-inch transmitter for embedding at the base of the cat’s skull where loose skin and flesh provided a natural pocket,” writes Wallace and Melton in Spycraft. “Implanting the transmitter proved viable, once a device was packaged to withstand the temperature, fluids, chemistry, and humidity of the body. Microphone placement presented a more difficult problem since flesh is a poor conductor.” 10

Richelson describes how animal anatomy could overcome hardware restrictions:

The concept behind the Acoustic Kitty project was that unlike a mechanical bugging device, a cat’s ear had a cochlea, as did a human ear, that could filter out irrelevant noise. Project staffers attempted to train a cat to listen to conversations and not to the background noise – as an interim step in designing a microphone that could filter out extraneous noise. [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] Then, according to Marchetti,

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. 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!” [Op. cit.].11

  

Wallace describes some of the problems with using a cat to spy in the days before animal training became commonplace in motion pictures:

Acoustic kitty demonstrated that transmitters could be embedded in animals without damage or discomfort.i The experimental animals could be directed to move short distances to target locations and people in a known environment. However, outside the experimental laboratory, Acoustic kitty had a mind of its own. Eventually, deployment of Acoustic kitty in a foreign environment over which the “handler” would have not assured control was judged impractical and the project was closed.12

A heavily redacted agency memo titled “[Deleted] Views on Trained Cats [Deleted] for [Deleted] Use” stated that “the program would not lend itself in a practical sense to our highly specialized needs.” 13

[Deleted] Views on Trained Cats [Deleted] for [Deleted] Use
http://www2.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB54/st27.pdf

photoshopped Micro Aerial Vehicle (MAV)
 
 
Chinese cyber-pigeon
Robot Engineering Technology Research Centre
Shandong University of Science and Technology in China (2007)
 

“Operation Acoustic Kitty, misadventure though it was, was a visionary idea just fifty years before its time,” comments Anthes.143

“In the late 1960s, ORD was also interested in attempting to turn birds – both real and mechanical ones – into spies,” notes Richelson.15

Today the quest for cyber-spies is as active as ever. Anthes describes how:

in 2006, for example, DARPA zeroed in on insects, asking the nation’s scientists to submit “innovative proposals to develop technology to create insect-cyborgs.”… As far-fetched and improbable as DARPA’s dream of steerable robo-bugs sounds, a host of recent scientific breakthroughs means it’s likely to be far more successful than Acoustic Kitty was.16

“By coincidence, in 1966, a British film called Spy With a Cold Nose featured a dog wired up to eavesdrop on the Russians,” writes The Telegraph. “It was the same year as the Acoustic Kitty was tested.” 17

“The fate of this asset has become serio-comic lore, obscured by conflicting accounts and CIA classification,” writes Tom Vanderbilt for Smithsonian Magazine. Richelson “quotes ex-CIA official Victor Marchetti on the program’s demise during a field trial:”

“They put [the cat] 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!”

But Wallace disputes that. “It was a serious project,” he says. “The acoustic kitty was not killed by getting run over by a taxicab.” His source? “The guy who was a principal in the project.” 18

Pen Camera and Acoustic Kitty (Top Secret Weapons Revealed)


i Researchers say they are making rapid improvements in electronics, including small, implantable computers.… The new line of research has been dubbed “affective brain-computer interfaces” by some, meaning electronic devices that alter feelings, perhaps under direct control of a patient’s thoughts and wishes. “Basically, we’re trying to build the next generation of psychiatric brain stimulators,” says Alik Widge, a researcher on the Mass General team.
– Antonio Regalado, “Military Funds Brain-Computer Interfaces to Control Feelings,” MIT Technology Review, 29 May 2014, at http://www.technologyreview.com/news/527561/military-funds-brain-computer-interfaces-to-control-feelings/ (retrieved: 23 March 2015).

 
 

Sources

1 Andrew Handley, “10 Weird Military Plans to Use Animals as Weapons,” ListVerse, 5 February 2013, at http://listverse.com/2013/02/05/10-creative-military-plans-to-use-animals-as-weapons/ (retrieved: 23 March 2015).

2 Chris Parsons, “Dolphins retired by U.S. Navy: Meet the other animals of war,” Yahoo News , 4 December 2012, at https://uk.news.yahoo.com/dolphins-retired-by-u-s–navy–meet-the-other-animals-of-war-124500061.html (retrieved: 24 March 2015).

3 Emily Anthes, Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts (New York: NY: Scientific American, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2013), p. 143.

4 Jon, “The CIA once tried using cats as spies,” DumpADay, submitted to Today I found out, at http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2011/08/the-cia-once-tried-using-cats-as-spies/ (retrieved: 23 March 2015).

5 Robert Wallace and H. Keith Melton, Spycraft: The Secret History of the CIA’s Spytechs, from Communism to Al-Qaeda (New York, NY: Dutton, 2008), p. 200.

6 Jon, “The CIA once tried using cats.”

7 Parsons, “”Dolphins retired.”

8 Anthes, Frankenstein’s Cat, p. 143.

9 Jeffrey T. Richelson, The Wizards Of Langley: Inside The Cia’s Directorate Of Science And Technology (Cambridge, MA: Westview Press, 2001), p. 147.

10 Wallace, Spycraft, pp. 200-201.

11 Richelson, Wizards of Langley, p. 147.

12 Wallace, Spycraft, p. 201.

13 “Memorandum for [Deleted], [Deleted] Views on Trained Cats [Deleted] for [Delspyeted] Use,” released September 1983, George Washington University, at http://www2.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB54/st27.pdf (retrieved: 21 November 2014).

14 Anthes, Frankenstein’s Cat, p. 144.

15 Richelson, Wizards of Langley, p. 148.

16 Anthes, Frankenstein’s Cat, p. 144.

17 Charlotte Edwardes, “CIA recruited cat to bug Russians,” The Telegraph, 4 November 2001, at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/1361462/CIA-recruited-cat-to-bug-Russians.html (retrieved: 25 March 2015).

18 Tom Vanderbilt, “The CIA’s Most Highly-Trained Spies Weren’t Even Human,” October 2013, at http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-cias-most-highly-trained-spies-werent-even-human-20149/?all (retrieved: 19 December 2014).

See also

Kevin J. Crosby, “Cyborgs,” Tinfoil Hat, at http://skewsme.com/tinfoilhat/chapter/brain-implants/ (retrieved: 19 December 2014).

“Acoustic Kitty,” Facebook.com, at https://www.facebook.com/AcousticKiddy (retrieved: 19 December 2014).

SpyCats, Mario’s Profaca, at http://mprofaca.cro.net/spycats.html (retrieved: 23 March 2015).

Related videos

“Acoustic Kitty, CIA cyber-spy,” videos at YouTube.com, http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL6eiZEPoQbias4uAj03m4hRXdcu9B3gPI (retrieved: November 2014). (Show video)

“Special Agent Oso | Shutterbug Time Official Music Video | Disney Junior,” disneyjunior video at YouTube.com, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9hLowmoU5nU (retrieved: 23 March 2015). (Show video)

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