Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Metro history: A D.C. taxicab killed America's premier CIA-trained cat spy

January 18, 2012 - 04:28 PM
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Acoustic Kitty. (Photo: Spycraft: The Secret History)

As if the D.C. Taxicab Commission wasn't already receiving enough heat from the Uber mess, let's turn to a sadder piece of local taxi history — the tale of how our country's multimillion-dollar CIA-trained cat spy died at the wheels of a D.C. taxicab. Today I've already talked about dogs (and about cabs and technology), so it's only fair I bring up felines as well.

The United States began pondering the possibility of cat spies during the Cold War, in the early 1960s, a fact we only learned of in recent years as documents were declassified. The project involved surgically implanting hearing devices inside cats, if you can believe it, and letting the creatures run wild in the vicinity of Very Important People in order to learn state secrets. Even the Soviets had to love cuddling with cats, right? Accounts of the CIA's $25-million Acoustic Kitty project are available throughout the Internet, but one of the more detailed and fun couple pages come from Alan Bellows' book Alien Hand Syndrome in a section called "Cyborg Spy Kitties." He recounts a former CIA agent's description: "They slit the cat open, put batteries in him, wired him up. The tail was used as an antenna. They made a monstrosity."

Yikes. I'll say. My family grew up with multiple cats, and I can't imagine my childhood pet Norman strapped up with all those devices. Sam Stall notes that this CIA-crafted prototype was one of the "100 cats who changed civilization" in his book of the same name.

A half decade passed from the project's start to its first field test in 1966 or '67, according to most reports I've read, but the first big spying attempt did not last long.

The government agents took their first super-expensive, super-sneaky test cat to Wisconsin Avenue in Washington, D.C., where they released it from a van. Nearby was a reputed Soviet compound ... a perfect spot for the newest CIA operative to stick its whiskers. Can you imagine the agents handling a cat as they drove through D.C. traffic? All the cats I know mew constantly on car rides, and I suspect the Acoustic Kitty was no different.

Soon enough, the cat was free on the street. Millions upon millions of dollars of research would finally pay off. Communist secrets were at stake! But before the cat even crossed the road, its life ended violently. All the microphones would have captured, had they continued to operate, were the sounds of screeching feline death.

Yes, you can imagine the scary sight, a familiar one even today on our roads — a D.C. taxi zooming down Wisconsin. The first Acoustic Kitty's life ended with eyes locked on that taxicab bumper. The U.S. cat spying program was terminated within a year. A 1983 CIA memo on the project notes that such cat spy training is possible but that the overall mission fails in a "practical sense." This past fall, Councilmember Tommy Wells said that taxi drivers are "more hostile" and more liable to show "complete disregard" toward others on the road. Apparently this remained true even in the 1960s ... and the disregard included kittens.

But don't judge too harshly. The life of a D.C. cab driver, we know, is not entirely easy, as we see in the video below.

Read Bellows' account of Acoustic Kitty here and read more pieces of Metro history here.

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