Most of us don’t know much about what the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) actually does. Without some degree of mystery, after all, it can’t carry out its purpose to covertly collect information about foreign governments, corporations, and individuals for American policymakers. So when we do learn anything about a specific CIA program, it’s usually after the fact, and usually because it was a big enough failure to garner media attention. With the understanding that all details about the agency’s dealings are sketchy, unconfirmed, and, well, secret, here are four of the twentieth century’s biggest CIA flops.
1. Operation Acoustic Kitty: The Cold War era of the 1960s was the CIA’s heyday. Americans were so worried about what the Communists were doing and whether they had nuclear weapons that we would have done just about anything to find out.
And the secret agents, glorified in spy novels and movies, who did get the dirt on the Reds were our heroes. The CIA’s carte blanche in chasing Communists led to rumors of some pretty bizarre ideas, like Operation Acoustic Kitty, which supposedly ran from 1961 to 1967, and involved the CIA’s surgically implanting cats with audio equipment to use them as bugging devices.
Though the basic idea for the plot — that a cat would go unnoticed and could easily eavesdrop on Soviet conversations — was certainly innovative, former CIA officer Victor Marchetti recalls many problems with Acoustic Kitty:
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!’
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