In the aftermath of the Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden, one member of the team received a disproportionate amount of media attention: the dog. Though not much information has been released, there was, apparently, a single canine member of the special team. (The New York Post recently reported that the dog in question was named Cairo, one of the few details to emerge about the canine.)
It seems that there was almost no media outlet in which the story of the mysterious canine commando did not appear, and journalists speculated about everything from the dog’s breed to the tasks he’d be trained to perform. (Foreign Policy put together two lovely slideshows depicting the dogs of war. I highly recommend checking them out.)
Slate, being Slate, was inspired by this coverage to put together a slideshow on the “cats of war.” It’s a hilarious sequence of photoillustrations showing cats storming the beaches of Normandy, sitting in the White House situation room, and bailing out of planes.
The U.S military has famously relied on all manner of animals–not only dogs but also pigeons and even dolphins. (The cetaceans have been used in the Persian Gulf to help find underwater explosives.) But the reason I found myself chuckling at the Slate slideshow is because cats seem like the most unlikely of military heroes. And then it occurred to me: I had, in fact, come across strange chapter of U.S. national security history in which a feline had played a starring role.
In the course of researching my book on animals and biotechnology, I discovered the strange tale of “Acoustic Kitty.” In 1961, the CIA launched a covert operation by that name. The goal: to turn a tabby into an unwitting spy by wiring it up with electronic recording equipment. The idea was to release the cat near Soviet compounds and hope that the creature wandered onto windowsills or park benches or other places where it could record secret discussions.
Of course, to be an effective spy, the cat couldn’t have wires winding all over its fur. And so, the experts decided that they’d have to hide the electronics inside. In a series of what must have been gruesome operations, officials slit open an unfortunate feline and slipped a microphone, an antenna, and a set of batteries inside.
When the cat was ready for its first official test, the agents released the tabby near a Soviet meeting place in Washington, D.C. The cat immediately wandered into the road, where he was promptly squashed by a taxi. The program was abandoned; as a heavily redacted CIA memo from the time delicately phrased it, “Our final examination of trained cats … convinced us that the program would not lend itself in a practical sense to our highly specialized needs.” (Those specialized needs, one assumes, include an unsquashed feline.) (The National Security Archive has a copy of the redacted memo available for download.)
The cyborg spy kitty seems like a laughably bad idea, but the Department of Defense hasn’t given up on cyborg spies. (DARPA is particularly interested in using large insects, such as moths or beetles, for this purpose.) I’ll be talking more about these newfangled animal spies–as well as the tragic tale of Acoustic Kitty–in my book.