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(Dan Winters)

The CIA’s Most Highly-Trained Spies Weren’t Even Human

As a former trainer reveals, the U.S. government deployed nonhuman operatives—ravens, pigeons, even cats—to spy on cold war adversaries

The fate of this asset has become serio-comic lore, obscured by conflicting accounts and CIA classification. Jeffrey Richelson, in his book The Wizards of Langley, quotes ex-CIA official Victor Marchetti on the program’s demise during a field trial: “They put [the cat] out of the van, and a taxi comes and runs him over. There they were, sitting in the van with all those dials, and the cat was dead!”

But Wallace disputes that. “It was a serious project,” he says. “The acoustic kitty was not killed by getting run over by a taxicab.” His source? “The guy who was a principal in the project.” Wallace says Bailey’s name is not familiar to him, though he adds that by the time he joined the agency, “the animal work was really historic.”

Bailey says ABE’s records were destroyed in a 1989 fire, and the CIA declined my request under the Freedom of Information Act for documents relating to animal training for intelligence activities, noting that even “the fact of the existence or nonexistence of requested records is currently and properly classified.” A CIA press officer told me, “Unfortunately, we cannot help you with this.” Thus the agency’s only official word on the project appears in “Views on Trained Cats,” a heavily redacted document in the National Security Archive at George Washington University. While acknowledging that “cats can indeed be trained to move short distances,” it concludes that “the program would not lend itself in a practical sense to our highly specialized needs.”

During the 1960s and 1970s, as dancing chickens entertained crowds at the I.Q. Zoo, Bailey and a handful of his colleagues were undertaking intelligence scenarios nearby. “We had a 270-acre farm,” he says. “We built towns. Like a movie set, there’d be only fronts.” Without disclosing who they were working for, Bailey had his team rearrange the town according to photographs they were given. There were also field demonstrations—including one at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. “‘This is the room we want to get to,’” Bailey says he was told. “ ‘Can you get your raven up there to deposit a device, and can we listen?’ Yes, we can.” The bird would be conditioned, via a laser spotter, to pick out the room. At Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Bailey created a so-called “squab squad,” pigeons that would fly ahead of a column and signal the presence of enemy soldiers by landing. In tests, the pigeons, says Bailey, thwarted more than 45 attempts by Special Forces troops to ambush a convoy. But, as was so often the case, field operations revealed a problem: There was no way to retrieve the pigeons if they saw no enemy troops.

When I ask Bailey if any of the various animal projects were ever used in real-world scenarios, he turns uncharacteristically laconic. But then a thin smile cracks his face. “We got the ravens into places. We got the cats into places,” he says. “Usually using diplomatic pouches.” He says he carried a raven aboard a commercial flight, against regulations. “It was in a map case under the front seat,” he says, “and every now and then the raven would make a noise.” He makes a low guttural groaning. “I’d be in my seat and I’d go like this,” he says, squirming.

But the nexus between the shadows and the midway proved brittle: When the Senate Select Committee to Study Government Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities (also known as the Church Committee, for chairman Frank Church of Idaho) was formed in 1975 to investigate abuses of power at several U.S. intelligence agencies, including the CIA, ABE decided to end its intelligence work. And in 1990, the I.Q. Zoo served up its last match of chicken tick-tack-toe.

Over lunch at McClard’s Bar-B-Q (a favorite of former President Bill Clinton, who grew up in Hot Springs), Bailey notes that animal intelligence work of the sort he did has been rendered largely superfluous by technology. “Today, all you have to do is illuminate someone with an infrared laser and pick up the scatter back from that, and you can listen to their conversation without any trouble at all,” he says. “You don’t need a cat.”

But that doesn’t mean Bailey is done. He’s been working with security agencies in Europe, he says, on training dogs, via acoustic signals, to perform any number of security tasks. “There’s nothing that can run up stairs like a dog,” he says. “It has a billion years of evolution behind it.”

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