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The Cat Who Couldn't Spy: A CIA Fail

The CIA in the 1960s attempted to create 'a living, walking surveillance machine.'

The CIA once recruited a feline agent to spy on enemies, according to a new book that sheds light on the elite cat and its abysmal failure during "Operation Acoustic Kitty."

Emily Anthes, author of the new book "Frankenstein's Cat", told Discovery News that felines weren't the only non-human field agents.

There were "cyborg insects as well as cyborg rats (called ratbots)," she said, adding that "there's a long history of using dogs in military and police operations" with some of the dogs "outfitted with cameras and other sophisticated technological equipment."

PHOTOS: 10 Trickiest Spy Gadgets Ever

The U.S. military has also tried to use implants to control shark movements.

Operation Acoustic Kitty, however, is one of the more memorable attempts to turn an animal into a spy. It took place in the 1960s.

"In an hour-long procedure, a veterinary surgeon transformed the furry feline into an elite spy," Anthes explains, "implanting a microphone in her ear canal and a small radio transmitter at the base of her skull, and weaving a thin wire antenna into her long gray-and-white fur."

The goal was to transform the female feline into "a living, walking surveillance machine." Anthes said the CIA hoped to train the cat to sit near foreign officials, in order to eavesdrop on their conversations.

Amazingly, the poor cat lived through the operation.

"For its first official test," Anthes wrote, "CIA staffers drove Acoustic Kitty to the park and tasked it with capturing the conversation of two men sitting on a bench."

"Instead," she continued, "the cat wandered into the street, where it was promptly squashed by a taxi."

The road kill kitty seemed to end all hope that a cat could be transformed into a James Bond-type spy.

Scientists in more recent years have turned their attention to other species.

Anthes notes that in 2006, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) considered manipulating actual insects for surveillance purposes.

Researchers often study insects to model machinery after their behavior, but they usually just create a machine that copies one or more insect attributes. Richard Bomphrey of Oxford University, for example, led a project a few years ago to build tiny aerial vehicles equipped with innovative flapping wings based on those of real-life insects.

Innovations Inspired by Animals

The DARPA effort, however, involved cyborg bugs.

A DARPA pamphlet explained that "it might be possible to transform (insects) into predictable devices that can be used for ... missions requiring unobtrusive entry into areas inaccessible or hostile to humans."

Anthes said the call launched a grand science fair, but she doesn't think the bugs are ready to be deployed just yet.

Would-be criminals should perhaps pay more attention to pigeons instead.

Su Xuecheng of the Robot Engineering Technology Research Center of East China's Shandong University of Science and Technology announced that he and his colleagues implanted micro electrodes in the brain of a pigeon, allowing the researchers to direct the bird to fly left, right, up or down.

"It's the first such successful experiment on a pigeon in the world," Xuecheng said.

Animal rights groups, however, want this and the other experiments to end.

PETA issued this response: "Pigeons are not inanimate remote-controlled toys. Manipulating the brains of animals is cruel."

In the latest James Bond movie, Spectre, which opens in theaters today the gizmo-maker Q is a young hacker type. As technology advances so must the gadgetry of espionage. But in years past, the technology we may find quaint today was invaluable for covert operations. The broadest collection of these gadgets can be found at The International Spy Museum, one of a few spy museums in the world. The Central Intelligence Agency also has a museum in Langley, but it can only be visited with an invitation. There is, however, a virtual tour. While you wait on that special invitation, Boghardt shines a light on 10 famous -- and infamous -- spy gadgets housed at the International Spy Museum, which is open to the public:

"It's a classic," Boghardt says of this 4.5 millimeter single-shot weapon, presumably taken from a KGB agent in the mid-1960s. While it's unclear whether this dangerous "kiss of death" was ever used, a cyanide pistol was used for assassination in that era. These covert weapons are surviving examples of the "active measures" that were taken in this time period, unlike many of their intended targets.

This little camera, Model F-21 issued by the KGB around 1970, was concealed in a buttonhole and has a release that the wearer presses from a pocket. Just squeeze the shutter cable and the fake button opens to capture an image. Hidden, portable cameras could be used at public events such as political rallies without detection. Boghardt notes that the Spy Museum's director Peter Earnest, who worked for many years in the CIA on intelligence, has used one of these cameras.

In the 1960s, the East German foreign intelligence service HVA issued this tiny camera, which takes photos of documents and uses a chemical process to shrink the text down so that a block of text appears no bigger than a period. This way agents could hide secret messages in plain sight. Boghardt points to an infamous incident involving microdots: Dusko Popov, a double agent during World War II, gave microdots to the FBI that mentioned German interest in Pearl Harbor. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover didn't trust Popov, however, so he never passed the information to president Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Western diplomats in Eastern Europe avoided buying suits there, preferring to mail order clothing and shoes from the West. In Romania, the secret service used this to their advantage, working with the postal service to install a transmitter in shoe heels. Boghardt says that the recording device was discovered during a routine room sweep that revealed a signal, but the signal disappeared when all the diplomats left the room.

Messages sent over the wireless in the World War II era could be intercepted so the Germans used a cryptographic device. On the surface, the Enigma cipher machine looked like a regular typewriter, but it wasn't. A keyboard was linked to rotors, powered by an electric current, which transposed every keystroke several times. Corresponding messages went out in Morse code and required keys, which changed daily, to decipher -- get it? "De-cipher. " Which is exactly what the Allies did, cracking a code the Germans thought was unbreakable.

It's tempting to think that spy gadgets aren't all that old, but even Caesar encoded messages using cryptography. This disk dates back to the Civil War, when it was used by the Confederate side -- CSA stands for Confederate States of America. It's pretty obvious how the device works: rotate the inner wheel to displace the letters. M = G, P = J, etc. Simple to crack, right? Not if the message is written in a language you don't know. Spies were tricky like that.

A Bulgarian secret agent used an umbrella just like this one on a London street to kill Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov in 1978. A standard umbrella was modified internally to inject poison into its target with the press of the trigger. In Markov's case, the umbrella contained a ricin pellet, which is next to impossible to trace. The museum displays a replica, made specially in Moscow for the collection. Boghardt says that in 1991, a room full of similar deadly umbrellas was uncovered in Bulgaria.

It's a bird, it's a plane, it's a spy satellite! Before the dawn of aerial photography, pigeons did the job. Flying over enemy territory with a camera on autoshoot, pigeons could provide crucial information without getting lost along the way. Beyond photography, the birds also carried messages at times when radio communication was spotty or down. Pigeons sent through enemy fire up until the 1950s had a 95 percent success rate and were duly decorated with medals of honor for their service.

This tree stump bug used solar power to function continuously in a wooded area near Moscow during the early 1970s. The bug intercepted communications signals coming from a Soviet air base in the area and them beamed them to a satellite, which then sent the signals to a site in the United States. Solar power meant that no risky battery changes were needed. Nevertheless, the KGB discovered this green bug so the museum's copy is a replica.

Dog doo? Really? Boghardt says this, er, doohickey has a hollowed-out space inside, ideal for holding a message so that case officers and sources could communicate without raising suspicion. Doo tends to be left alone, which is why beacons disguised as tiger excrement were used to mark targets in Vietnam, Boghardt says. One of the risks is obviously that such a device would be thrown away or discovered by someone accidentally. "Accidents happened all the time," the historian says. "That's one of the challenges of being a spy or case officer."