Over the years, the American Central Intelligence Agency has gained a reputation for being the most far-reaching, sophisticated, and effective government intelligence agency on the planet. At the same time, the CIA has also become known for its incredible paranoia and propensity to undertake costly, sometimes illegal, and often downright absurd projects in the name of gaining an edge on the competition. From spy cats to psychic hippies, the following are ten of the weirdest spy programs the government has proposed and funded over the years.
10. Acoustic Kitty
Most people wouldn’t think of the common house cat as being a potential master of espionage, but the CIA sure did. In the 1960s, American intelligence is said to have spent over $20 million on “Acoustic Kitty,” a top-secret project that used cats as recording devices. The project took a group of specially trained cats and surgically implanted microphones, antennae and batteries into their tails, and then set them loose near the Russian embassy. The idea was that an unassuming cat would be able to stride right up to groups of communist officials and listen in on their conversation, which it could then beam back to agents with its sophisticated radio equipment. The plan was eventually put into action, but the first cat sent into the field was supposedly run over by a taxi before it could make a recording, and operation ‘Acoustic Kitty” was abandoned shortly thereafter.
9. Operation Mockingbird
One of the most ambitious and downright insidious programs ever launched by the CIA was Operation Mockingbird, a propaganda project that was implemented in the early 1950s. It was a massive undertaking that saw as many as 3,000 CIA agents and collaborators attempt to gain some control of the free press by feeding select groups of reporters information and using newspapers at home and abroad to filter the kinds of stories that got to the public. At its height, the program included writers for the New York Times, Newsweek, and Time Magazine among its ranks, and was said to have a significant influence on as many as 25 major newspapers. The program had a major impact abroad, as well, as it served a major function in helping to sway public opinion in the run-up to the eventual overthrowing of Guatemala’s leftist president. Operation Mockingbird continued to have a major effect on worldwide media throughout the 50s, and it was not until the 60s that a series of reports by investigative journalists brought the program to light.
8. Operation Gold
One of the most audacious intelligence operations of the Cold War was 1953’s Operation Gold, which was a joint effort between the CIA and the British MI6 to hack into the phone lines of the Soviet headquarters in East Berlin. This required the construction of a massive 450-meter long tunnel that would intersect with an underground telephone junction. Just preparing the tunnel took six months, and involved a substantial amount of risk and subterfuge. But when it was done, the CIA proceeded to carefully record as many as 50,000 telephone conversations over the course of nearly a year. The problem? A mole in British intelligence had tipped off the KGB about Operation Gold before the tunnel was even completed, and the Soviets had been feeding fake them information the entire time. In 1956, the Soviets raided the tunnel and shut it down, and the operation eventually caused a great deal of controversy for the American and British intelligence communities
7. Operation Northwoods
In the early 1960s, when the Cold War was in full swing and fear of communism was rampant, a plan dubbed Operation Northwoods was proposed within the American CIA. In short, it called for the government to perform a series of violent terrorist actions in U.S. cities including bombings, hijackings, phony riots, and sabotage, all of which could then be blamed on Cuba. This would drum up support for a war against the communists and lead to an eventual military operation to remove Fidel Castro from power. The plan was drafted and signed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and presented to President John F. Kennedy, who personally rejected it, and it was subsequently abandoned. For years after, Operation Northwoods existed as a rumor, but it was finally revealed to be true when top-secret documents describing the plan were made public in 1997 as part of a release of government papers relating to the Kennedy assassination.
6. Project Pigeon
One of the most seemingly preposterous military programs of all time occurred during WWII, when famed behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner was enlisted by the government to try and train pigeons for use in a missile guidance system. At the time, Skinner was known as one of the major practitioners of operant conditioning, a system that used reward and punishment as a means of controlling behavior. With these ideas in mind, Skinner placed a series of specially trained pigeons inside missiles. A camera on the front of the missile recorded its flight path, which was then projected on a screen for the pigeon to see. The birds were trained to recognize the missile’s intended target, and they would peck at the screen if it was drifting off course. This information was fed to the weapon’s flight controls, which would then be changed to reflect the new coordinates. Skinner was originally given $25,000 to get the project up and running, and he actually managed to make some minor progress with it. But government officials were never quite able to get past the obvious absurdity of the program, and it was eventually shut down.
5. Operation Midnight Climax
In the early 1960s, the youth culture of America was first beginning to experiment with hallucinogenic drugs like LSD, and so was the Central Intelligence Agency. Operation Midnight Climax was one of the government’s most ridiculous and illegal attempts to test the possible uses of drugs like acid by administering them to unsuspecting citizens. The program was run out of a collection of safehouses in New York and California. Prostitutes were used to lure young men to the houses, at which point they were given food or drink spiked with LSD and other drugs and placed in a room with a two-way mirror where their behavior could be observed. Midnight Climax was essentially an experimental program designed to monitor the possible tactical uses of psychotropic drugs and sexual blackmail in the field, but even within the Agency it was controversial, and it was shut down after only a few years. Most of the files connected to the operation were destroyed, but a few survived, and in the early 70s the files regarding Midnight Climax and many other illegal CIA programs were brought to light in a famous story by the New York Times.
4. The Stargate Project
The $20 million Stargate Project was a blanket term used to describe a large number of psychic experiments and investigations undertaken by the U.S. government between the 70s and 90s. The biggest goal of the Stargate Project was to investigate the scientific probability of “remote viewing,” which is the psychic ability to witness events over great distances. The program, which also investigated psychic abilities like out of body experiences and clairvoyance, tested subjects on their ability to predict future events and read hidden documents. The Stargate Project usually enlisted the services of anywhere from 3 to 22 subjects at a time, many of whom managed to test with an accuracy rating as much as 15% higher than the norm. Still, although some participants claimed to have correctly predicted major world events like military attacks and hostage situations, the program found that remote viewers and so-called telepaths were still wrong nearly 80 percent of the time, and in 1995 the CIA cancelled the Stargate Project for good.
3. Operation Mongoose
In the early 60s, communist Cuba became one of the major battlegrounds of the Cold War, and its president Fidel Castro came to be considered one of the most dangerous political figures in the world. After early attempts to overthrow Castro by force failed, the CIA instituted Operation Mongoose, which was a secret war of propaganda and sabotage designed to remove the Cuban leader from power. Operation Mongoose had a remarkably wide scope, and included plans to fake attacks on Cuban exiles, provide arms to opposition groups, and destroy Cuba’s crop of sugarcane. It also included several attempts to either assassinate or discredit Castro in the press, each of which was more elaborate and ridiculous than the next. The Agency considered, among other things, poisoning Castro’s personal supply of cigars, planting explosives disguised as seashells in his favorite swimming spots, and injecting him with a deadly chemical from a hypodermic needle disguised as a pen. Even more bizarre were the plans to discredit Castro in the public eye, which included a proposal to spray a TV studio with hallucinogens prior to one of the leader’s televised speeches, and even planting chemicals in his clothes that would cause his famous beard to fall out. The near-disaster of the Cuban Missile Crisis put Operation Mongoose on hold, and following an agreement between Kennedy and the Soviets, it was more or less abandoned.
2. Project MKULTRA
One of the most downright creepy government programs and the fodder for countless conspiracy theories, Project MKULTRA was a sweeping and top-secret CIA program started in the early 1950s that included experiments in “chemical interrogation” and mind control. In short, MKULTRA was a plan that sought to use drugs, psychological stress, and bizarre interrogation methods to get information, control behavior, and even alter brain function. To this day, much of the information on the project remains classified, but what we do know is that the program involved the testing and interrogation of private citizens—often without their knowledge or consent—in the service of discovering whether or not certain drugs could be used as truth serums. This included giving subjects large doses of LSD, amphetamine, and mescaline, as well as shock therapy. In one case, subjects were supposedly dosed with acid for 77 days straight in an attempt to test the effects of long-term exposure to the drug. Conspiracy theories abound about the real goals of the project, with some saying it was a program to engineer zombie assassins through mind control and brainwashing. Some information about MKULTRA was finally brought to light in the early seventies, when news reports about CIA abuses of power led to a Congressional commission. The project was subsequently shut down, but many people claim that similar CIA programs still exist to this day.
1. The Bay of Pigs Invasion
For sheer absurdity, wastefulness, and infamy, few CIA projects compare to 1961’s failed Bay of Pigs Invasion. The program was one of the first and boldest attempts to overthrow communist Cuban leader Fidel Castro, but it was also the most disastrously unsuccessful. It started in 1960, when the CIA, under the authorization of the President, began planning an attempted overthrow of the Cuban government. In order to eliminate any link to the U.S., the attack was to be perpetrated by an army of Cuban exiles specially trained by the CIA. After a series of diversionary air strikes, on April 17, 1961, a group of amphibious troop transports landed on a beach in the Bay of Pigs and began unloading their cargo of 1,300 exile guerrillas. The plan was for them to rendezvous with a smaller band of paratroops to be dropped soon after their arrival, but from the beginning their plan was tragically mistimed. For starters, Cuban intelligence was already aware of the planned invasion, and this meant that when the exile troops landed they were almost immediately under attack. To add to the force’s problems, bad weather, coral reefs, and the Cuban swamps quickly claimed most of their equipment. All told, an estimated 2,000 Cubans died during the invasion, while over 100 members of the exile army were killed in action. The remaining 1,200 were captured and imprisoned, and some were later executed on the orders of Castro. Over a year later, the rest were freed in exchange for $53 million in food and medicine for Cuban people. The effects of the Bay of Pigs were far reaching. Several American officials resigned over their involvement in it, and many have credited it with increasing the resolve of the Cuban government and encouraging a severe distrust of American foreign policy in the years that followed.