Drones transformed modern warfare. At the beginning of the War in Iraq, only a few unmanned aerial vehicles were in play and almost no unmanned ground vehicles. Now, those terminator-like war machines rule the skies and provide vital ground support for troops who (understandably) want to be far away when deciding whether to snip the blue or red wire on a roadside bomb.
However, as new as they are, there was one early predecessor to the military drone, conceived of in the heart of a secret CIA laboratory during the 1960s. This “drone”, however, was not quite like the whirring monstrosities you see middle-aged hobbyists touting down at the park on a Sunday.
During the height of cold war surveillance operations, the geniuses at the CIA gave new ironic meaning to the term “military intelligence” when they came up with the ill-fated plan to turn an ordinary house cat into a top-secret spy. Transparently named “Operation Acoustic Kitty”, the idea was to hook up a cat with surveillance equipment and use it to spy on the Russians.
What must have begun as a drunken bet gone disastrously wrong ended up becoming one of the strangest projects in the history of military surveillance.
According to former CIA operative Victor Marchetti in his controversial (and much redacted) book The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence:
“They slit the cat open, put batteries in him, wired him up. The tail was used as an antenna. They made a monstrosity.”
Of course, as anyone who has spent even a few minutes with a cat knows, they are bastards. They will never take orders from a human and tend to go wandering off looking for food or chasing birds on a whim. The CIA's way around this was to first wire the cat so that it wouldn’t respond to hunger and then, according to Marchetti, “They took it 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!”
At this point, we think it appropriate to point out this was not some whimsical idea, thought up and passed over the moment they realised it was completely insane. This was a five-year endeavour with a budget of over US$15 million.
The first field test of the feline spy ended in less than spectacular fashion. The CIA drove the cat to a suspected Soviet compound in Wisconsin and released it from their unmarked van. The cat strolled across the road only to be instantly hit by a taxi. And that was it – five years of effort and US$15 million dollars later – all reduced to road kill in a matter of minutes. Safe to say, the operation was considered an abject failure.
Today, the CIA documentation on the project is still redacted in many parts, probably to save on the levels of sheer embarrassment they might suffer. What we do know is that a CIA officer was quickly sent to the scene to scoop up the remains of the Acoustic Kitty before the Russians got a hold of the sensitive recording equipment. Had the Soviets managed to uncover the remains of this monumental fuck up, we imagine they may have been able to win the whole Cold War simply by ridiculing the U.S. into defeat.
The final conclusion made by the CIA was that while the use of trained cats is possible, they believe 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.”
No shit, CIA.
MORE WEIRD CIA SHIT
The Cold War
Everyone knows the cold war was an intense period of geopolitical upheaval as two superpowers battled for global supremacy. What you don’t read in the history books is the crazy hijinks intelligence agencies pulled to try and get an edge on their opponents. For example:
1. Kill Castro: according to the former head of the Cuban Secret Service, revolutionary-cum-dictator, Fidel Castro has survived over 600 assassination attempts. Some of the more creative ways the U.S tried to take the beard out involve exploding cigars, exploding seashells and poison wetsuits.
2. The Men Who Stare at Goats: the Stargate Project was the code name established in 1978 for the investigation of psychic phenomena in military applications. A small team of psychics were assembled in a leaky wooden barracks and asked to “remotely view” areas of interest in the Soviet Union. The project continued up until 1995 when the CIA finally concluded that it was never useful in any intelligence operation.
3. Trippy, Man: It wasn’t long after LSD started hitting the hippy scene in the 1960s that the CIA thought to apply it to a military setting. In one instance, a brothel was set up to secretly drug a selection of men who could be watched through one-way mirrors. It was assumed the men would be too embarrassed to report what happened to them. Further attempts to use LSD as a mind control agent or bioweapon were considered failures.