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Natural Spies: Animals in Espionage

April 22, 2024

At CIA, we find inspiration in all kinds of places, including nature. From robotic catfish to real-life spy birds, animals and their look-alikes have helped Agency officers perform a variety of critical duties, including eavesdropping, intelligence gathering, security, covert communications, and photo surveillance.

A buzzing bee, a fish swimming in a lake, a bird landing in a nearby tree… these everyday occurrences have fueled the imaginations of Agency officers for decades. If you think about it, animals can go into places that humans can’t, and they often go unnoticed by the people around them.

They make the perfect natural spies.

While many of the animal programs studied by CIA were never deployed operationally—or failed for a variety of technical, logistical, or behavioral reasons—collectively they demonstrate the incredible innovation and creative thinking that has come to characterize everything that our Directorate of Science and Technology does.

In honor of Earth Day, we wanted to take a closer look at some of the ways our furry, feathered, and scaled friends have affected intelligence operations, innovations, and tradecraft over the years. Join us as we explore the role of animals in espionage.

Pigeon with Camera

It’s a bird. It’s a plane. No, it’s a spy pigeon with a camera.

Spy Birds: Pigeons

In one of our more “feather-brained” schemes, CIA sent out pigeons with secret cameras to gather intelligence during the Cold War.

CIA’s Office of Research and Development created a camera so tiny and lightweight that a pigeon could carry it. The camera was strapped to the bird’s chest with a little harness, and the bird would be released over a secret area in a foreign country that we wanted to know more about. The camera would snap pictures as the bird flew back home to us.

Why pigeons? They were perfect because they are such common birds. Who would ever think a pigeon was actually a secret spy-bird taking photographs for the CIA? The pigeon was able to conceal itself as an intelligence collection platform among thousands of other birds.

Pigeon imagery was taken from hundreds of feet above the target, whereas planes like the A-12 OXCART and U-2 took photographs from tens of thousands of feet, and reconnaissance satellites like Corona were miles above the target. Pigeons with cameras allowed us to have a much more detailed view of what was going on in a specific area. Although parts of the pigeon program are still classified, you can read more about it here: Animal Partners | CIA FOIA (foia.cia.gov)

Street Cat

Random street cat or spy?

Spy Cats: Acoustikitty

For years there have been many disturbing rumors and myths going around about a real-life CIA cat known as, “Acoustikitty.”  

We at the Agency love cats—at least a lot of us do—so let’s set the record straight on this persistent story.

Beginning in 1964, CIA explored the idea of using a cat, wired with a microphone and transmitter, to monitor conversations held in the open—such as on park benches between foreign agents and their Soviet handlers—that otherwise couldn’t be eavesdropped upon. The thought was that the cat could move close to the conversation without attracting any notice. A cat was selected, and a microphone was implanted in one ear, a very small transmitter was embedded under its loose skin, and an antenna was woven into its long fur.

The technology worked, but the problem was something all cat owners are quite familiar with—the feline had a mind of its own and was impossible to control. During limited field tests, the cat went wherever it felt like and not to the places we wanted it to go.

Although the program was ended in 1967 without Acoustikitty ever being used operationally, it lives on in myth.

One of the common myths is that the cat was mistreated while the technology was implanted, creating a “Frankenkitty.” In fact, the devices were implanted and removed in a low-risk microsurgical procedure under the same humane conditions found in any veterinary clinic, and the cat was unharmed.

Another persistent myth is that the cat was killed during a field test, hit by a cab or a bus depending on the story. However, the source of that story is a former CIA official who in 1979 admitted his comments were meant to be a joke. Unfortunately, the public and even some Agency officers didn’t know it was a joke, and the rumors of Acoustikitty’s tragic demise have taken on a life, or should we say, “nine-lives” of their own.

Charlie the robotic catfish

Charlie the robotic catfish

Spy Fish: Charlie and Charlene

While it turns out that cats don’t make the most reliable spies, our scientists thought the perfect creature to stealthily collect intelligence underwater might just be a catfish.

CIA’s Office of Advanced Technologies and Programs developed two unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) catfish, named “Charlie” and “Charlene,” to study aquatic robot technology. Some of their unique capabilities included maneuverability, speed and depth control, autonomy, and radio communications. They were controlled by a radio handset.

Their mission was to collect water samples without being detected. How? Say, for example, that we were concerned a group was up to nefarious activities in a specific location. We could deploy Charlie into a river, he would swim upstream and collect a water sample at that location, and then return the sample to his human “handlers” on the surface. Our scientists could then test the sample to see if there were things like nuclear runoff or a biochemical agent present in the water. Thanks to Charlie, CIA would know if anything “fishy” was going on.

Spy bug

A bug-carrying bug.

Spy Bugs: Insectothopter

That little bug hovering over the flowers… might not be an ordinary bug. In the 1970s, CIA’s Office of Research and Development created “Insectothopter,” the first insect-sized unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) of its kind! It was disguised as an everyday dragon fly.

When modeling spy tech after real animals, you must consider how the animal behaves in real life. The dragonfly was selected after the initial choice, a bumblebee, didn’t work as well as originally planned. A bumblebee flies in very erratic patterns, so it would have been noticed if it stopped to hover, and, if it flew too close to a person, they may have batted it away fearful of a bee sting.  

Insectothopter was intended to be a listening device. It had a small engine that would make its wings flap up and down, and it was directed and guided by a laser beam. Amazingly, it could fly 200 meters in 60 seconds!

Unfortunately, our little dragonfly proved not to be operational, because in crosswinds over five miles an hour it, it would get blown off its flight course.

K9 searching car

A CIA K9 searching the tires of a car for hidden explosive scents during a training exercise.

Spy Dogs: CIA K9 Corps

Technically they’re not “spy dogs,” but our CIA Explosive Detection K9s are an important part of our Security Protective Service (SPS), which ensures the Agency and employees are kept safe. The dogs sniff out explosives and protect CIA officers and our buildings from bombs and other explosive threats.

Dogs have an incredible sense of smell that makes them perfect for finding explosive odors. That’s because their noses are 10,000 times better than a human’s sense of smell! Imagine two million barrels of fresh apples: A dog could find a single rotten apple hidden among them.

Once a dog learns the scent of a particular explosive, it can pick out that scent even when that explosive is mixed with several other chemicals. In fact, our dogs can learn to recognize a few dozen individual explosive odors over a period of several weeks, and with that knowledge, they can detect more than 20,000 different explosive mixtures!

If you’re interested in learning more about how our CIA K9s are trained, and perhaps a tip or two for training your own dog, check out: CIA's Top 10 Dog Training Tips - CIA

Unusual Spy Devices: Tiger Droppings and Dead Rats, Oh My

These next two inventions are admittedly a little odd, but they highlight how the remnants of animals in the natural environment can serve as ingenious spy devices.

During the Vietnam War, the U.S. needed a way to monitor the opposition’s location and movement, which was instrumental in strategic planning.

That’s where tigers came in.

CIA scientists invented what is known as the seismic intruder detection device. It could be strategically placed to monitor movements up to 300 meters away. However, our scientists had to disguise the technology as an object that would blend into the natural habitat, while at the same time repel interest. Since tigers are native to Vietnam and were found in larger numbers 50 years ago, they provided the ideal cover.

The detection device was designed to look like tiger droppings.

Tiger scat

Watch where you step: Tiger scat or CIA tech?

Fueled by tiny power cells and containing a built-in antenna, the device was only 10.3 cm in length and 2 cm in diameter. It tracked movement by detecting and counting vibrations made by passing people, vehicles, and animals. Transmitters would then relay the data from the device via coded impulses. By disguising the device to look like tiger scat, it blended in with the natural landscape and was highly unlikely to draw attention.

The same general philosophy applies to dead drops.

Dead drops are a common form of communication used by CIA officers and their assets in the field, especially in high counterintelligence areas where it’s too dangerous for them to meet in person.

How it works is that a CIA officer would place a message or item into a concealment device, and then drop the device in a predetermined location—a dead drop—so that their asset could find it. Or vice versa.

When creating a dead drop concealment device, you want to make sure that it’s something so common that it will blend in with its surroundings or make it so disgusting that no one would ever think to pick it up. Something like… a dead rat, perhaps?

Warning: This video below may contain flickering or flashing scenes.

CIA’s Office of Technical Services thought rats would be a great way to conceal things during the Cold War. They treated the rat’s carcass with a preservation agent, cut it open, and created a hollow cavity where our officers could hide things like money, notes, or even film. The rat would then be sewn back up, placed at a pre-determined dead drop location, and then left for the asset to retrieve.  

Foolproof, right? Well, almost…

While our scientists were correct that humans would find dead rats disgusting and avoid them, we forgot that not all creatures felt the same way. Especially cats.  

During testing phases, the rats went missing because stray cats had stolen them. We didn’t want to abandon the plan, so our scientists came up with an innovative solution: they tried soaking the rats in things that the cats wouldn’t find so appetizing, like hot sauce and cayenne pepper.

The ultimate feline deterrent turned out to be wormwood oil.

Our officers would douse the rats with wormwood oil before placing them in the dead drop locations, and thus successfully avoided any run-ins with unsuspecting cat-burlers.

Nature, much like the CIA, never ceases to surprise.

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