My favorite story about American spying is one I've never been able to verify with the Central Intelligence Agency, and not for lack of trying.
At the height of the Cold War, the story goes, officials in the United States hatched a covert plan to keep tabs on Russians in Washington, D.C. They would, they decided, deploy surveillance cats—yes, actual cats surgically implanted with microphones and radio transmitters—to slip by security and eavesdrop on activity at the Soviet Embassy. The project went by the thinly disguised code name “Acoustic Kitty.”
“They slit the cat open, put batteries in him, wired him up,” said Victor Marchetti, who was an executive assistant to the director of the CIA in the 1960s, according to an account in Jeffrey Richelson's 2001 book, The Wizards of Langley. “The tail was used as an antenna. They made a monstrosity.”
A whiskered, yowling, unbelievably expensive monstrosity. The agency poured some $10 million into designing, operating on, and training the first Acoustic Kitty, according to several accounts.
When it came time for the inaugural mission, CIA agents released their rookie agent from the back of a nondescript van and watched eagerly as he set out on his mission. Acoustic Kitty dashed off toward the embassy, making it all of 10 feet before he was unceremoniously struck by a passing taxi and killed.
“There they were, sitting in the van,” Marchetti recalled, “and the cat was dead.”
The CIA eventually scrapped the project, concluding—according to partially redacted documents in George Washington University's archives—that despite the “energy and imagination” of those involved, it “would not be practical” to continue to try to train cats as spies. I mean. Yeah. Good call, guys.
In the popular imagination, spying evokes fancy gadgets like lipstick pistols, briefcase cameras, microphones hidden in loafers, and the occasional tricked-out surveillance cat. And yet the most impressive government surveillance efforts have always been built around the comparatively mundane infrastructure of ordinary communications networks.
And those networks, in addition to enabling intelligence-gathering on huge scales, rarely discriminate between diplomatic friend or foe. The United States isn’t just interested in keeping tabs on its enemies; it has a robust history of spying on its allies and its own citizens as well. Which is probably why the revelation this week that the National Security Agency secretly spied on the last three French presidents provoked plenty of outrage—but not a whole lot of surprise. The U.S. has always leveraged the dominant technological systems of the day—whether telegraph, cell phone, satellite, or undersea cable—to spy on its friends.
Like when, in 1862, President Abraham Lincoln gave his secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, sweeping surveillance power that included, as The New York Times reported, “total control of the telegraph lines” and a means by which to track “vast amounts of communication, journalistic, governmental and personal.” Stanton's authority was so vast—he ended up influencing the news that journalists published—that it prompted a congressional hearing on the matter of “telegraphic censorship.”
Or how U.S. military officials convinced the country’s three major telegraph companies to give the Army copies of all telegrams sent to and from the United States during World War II. Or that time when the NSA tapped German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone. Or when the United States secretly tracked billions of phone calls made by millions of U.S. citizens in the 1980s and 1990s. Another way to think about it: If the technology exists for communicating, it has probably been used for eavesdropping. (Remember: We're talking about a government that has trained cats, dolphins, and pigeons as spies.)
“Let’s be honest, we eavesdrop, too,” a former French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, told a French radio station in 2013, according to an account by the Associated Press. "Everyone is listening to everyone else. But we don’t have the same means as the United States, which makes us jealous.”
Much of the outrage about spying revelations is “faked for public consumption,” Max Boot wrote for Commentary Magazine that year. “Does the NSA spy on your leaders? Probably. Do you spy on leaders of allied states including the United States? Probably. You just don’t have the resources or capability to spy as effectively as the NSA does. But if you did, you would.”