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

(Dan Winters)
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But by then, ABE had a sideline: Not long after Bailey joined the firm, it had begun hearing from various government agencies: the CIA and the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground and Limited Warfare Laboratories. “They came to us to solve problems,” Bailey says. “It was the height of the cold war.”


A raven, in espionage parlance, is a male agent tasked with seducing intelligence targets. But avian ravens can be spies as well. When Bailey describes the Western raven, he sounds as if he’s talking about Jason Bourne. “It operates alone, and it does very well alone,” he says. Western ravens are adept at pattern recognition. “They could learn to respond to classes of objects,” he says. “If you’ve got a big desk and a little desk, you could train it to always go to the small one.” They can also carry quite a load. “These things could pick up weights, heavy packages, even file folders,” he says. “It was incredible to watch these ravens carry a load in their beaks that would have defeated an ordinary bird.” They also, he says, could be trained to open file drawers.

Robert Wallace, who headed the CIA’s Office of Technical Services in the 1990s, says the use of animals in intelligence has a long history. “Animals can go places people can’t. Animals are unalerting,” he told me. “The other side of the coin is that although animals can be trained, they have to be constantly trained. The upkeep, care and maintenance is significant.”

It is striking that even as the television program “Flipper” was making dolphins popular with American children, the creatures were becoming embroiled in the cold war arms race. As a partially declassified 1976 CIA document on naval dolphin training notes, the Soviets were “also assessing and replicating U.S. systems while possibly developing countermeasures to certain U.S. systems.” (The Navy still has its Marine Mammal Program, whose website notes that it “is an accredited member of the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums, an international organization committed to the care and conservation of marine mammals.”)

Even bugs—the kind with legs—were considered by the military establishment. “The Use of Arthropods as Personnel Detectors,” a 1972 report by the Army’s Limited Warfare Laboratory in Aberdeen, Maryland, summarizes research on the possibility of exploiting the “sensory capabilities of insects”—bedbugs, mosquitoes and ticks among them—“for the detection of people.” Scientists ruled out lice (“in a preliminary test they simply crawled about at random”) but saw “feasible” promise in the mosquito Anopheles quadrimaculatus, which “is normally at rest and will fly at the approach of a host,” and so might be used “to detect the approach of people during darkness.”

One of the first projects Bailey says he worked on involved creatures that, in many people’s minds, are beyond training: cats. While cats have a shorter history of domestication than dogs, Bailey insists it is “absolutely not true” that they cannot be trained.

In what has come to be called the “acoustic kitty” project, the CIA’s Directorate of Science and Technology proposed using a cat as a listening device. In their book Spycraft, the CIA’s Wallace and co-author H. Keith Melton write that the agency was targeting an Asian head of state for surveillance, and that “during the target’s long strategy sessions with his aides, cats wandered in and out of the meeting area.” The theory, says Bailey, was that no one would pay attention to the animals’ comings and goings.

“We found that we could condition the cat to listen to voices,” says Bailey. “We have no idea how we did it. But...we found that the cat would more and more listen to people’s voices, and listen less to other things.” Working with Robin Michelson, a California otolaryngologist and one of the inventors of the human cochlear implant, the team turned the cat into a transmitter—with, says Bailey, a wire running from the cat’s inner ear to a battery and instrument cluster implanted in its rib cage. The cat’s movements could be directed—left, right, straight ahead—with ultrasonic sound.


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