News, Culture & Society

The cat who spied for the US – until he got run over



by Vince Houghton (Profile £9.99, 304 pp)  

Conspiracy or cock-up? I have long subscribed to the cock-up theory of human disaster myself, because I believe more in things going wrong than going very, very right.

Vince Houghton, though, believes in both. He’s very interested in conspiracies, but only in the ones that go completely pear-shaped. His history of drastic espionage failures is amusing, surprising and, at times, almost beyond belief.

For instance, let’s consider Operation Acoustic Kitty which, like all of these stories, actually happened. This was one dreamt up in the Sixties by American intelligence to solve the problem of electronic bugs.

Vince Houghton examines a selection of historic schemes in a fascinating new book, including Operation Acoustic ­Kitty (file image)  

The bugs of the time were very good at picking up sound, but unlike the human ear, they could not distinguish between different noises. So as well as people talking, you would get traffic noises, dogs barking, people scratching, someone operating a Hoover, anything at all, so you couldn’t necessarily hear what the people were saying.

What the bugs needed was something like the cochlea, the part of the inner ear that helps you distinguish one sound from another — and enables you, for instance, to make out what someone else is saying during a particularly loud heavy metal concert.

Their idea then was to take an ordinary cat (cats have cochleas too), install the listening equipment under its fur, and send it off to eavesdrop on foreign nationals.

Cats, of course, aren’t interested in following orders, so it didn’t work until some boffin decided that, with further electronic modifications, a now almost bionic cat could be compelled to do what it was told. A cat was then chosen and suitably enhanced, at great expense.

On the day of the great test, two ‘spies’ were sitting talking in a park and a U.S. government van was parked over the street. The cat was let out. To the scientists’ delight it headed straight across the street towards the ‘spies’, as instructed. Until, at the last moment, it was run over by a taxi cab. Operation Acoustic Kitty was quietly retired.

During World War II, many ingenious plans were devised to kill Adolf Hitler. One such plan was when U.S. intelligence learned that Hitler and Mussolini were going to meet at the Brenner Pass in the Alps.

They proposed to introduce some cut flowers to the table between them, the water of which contained an odourless, colourless poison that would seep into the tyrants’ eyeballs and blind them by atrophying the optic nerve. Then Hitler and Mussolini changed the venue of their meeting, which stymied that one.

Another plan was to introduce female hormones to Hitler’s food, ‘to make his moustache fall out and his voice turn soprano’. I bet someone got a medal for dreaming that up.

NUKING THE MOON by Vince Houghton (Profile £9.99, 304 pp)

NUKING THE MOON by Vince Houghton (Profile £9.99, 304 pp)

Did you know that at the height of the Cold War, nuclear explosives were concealed under the ground in parts of rural West Germany?

So if the Soviets invaded, these would be set off, everyone (including the locals) would be killed and the whole area would be uninhabitable for generations. What were they thinking?

The problem came with the German winter, which can be brutal. The explosives would not work if they became too cold, but British researchers noticed there was enough space inside the casing of each one for them to insert a live chicken, which would help keep the device warm.

This was genuinely considered and might even have happened if the idea of hiding huge powerful nuclear bombs with chickens in the German countryside hadn’t been rejected by the politicians, for being obviously bonkers.

And the book’s title? In the late 1950s, the Americans seriously considered sending an atomic bomb up to the moon and blowing it up. They wanted to do this (a) to show that they could, and (b) before the Soviets did it, although there was no evidence the Soviets were even thinking of doing it.

Another cunning plan that, I’m happy to say, never made it off the drawing board.

Life isn’t like James Bond, or even John le Carré. It’s messy, flawed and often ridiculous. Houghton, who knows this better than anyone, turns out to be the Curator of the International Spy Museum.

Like a lot of stuff in his book, I very nearly believe this, but not quite.


Find local lawyers and law firms at