The CIA declassified the details of its secret spy-pigeon Cold War missions.
The records reveal how the pigeons were trained for covert missions photographing sensitive sites inside the Soviet Union.
The release also reveals how crows were used to dump insect gear on window sills and dolphins were trained for underwater missions.
The CIA thought the animals could perform "unique" tasks for the covert operations of the agency.
Inside the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, is a museum, unfortunately closed to the general public. During a visit to interview the director of the time, I discovered something unusual among all the bugging devices and spy gadgets.
It was a model pigeon with a camera attached to it.
My interest was heightened by the fact that I was writing a book on British spy pigeons during World War II. But it has been said – many times – that the details of the CIA spy pigeon missions were still classified. That was up to now.
The operation of the 1970s called Tacana and involved the use of pigeons with tiny cameras to automatically take pictures, as new files show.
He took advantage of the fact that the humble pigeon has an amazing ability – almost a superpower. They can be dropped to a place where they have never been and find their way up to hundreds of miles from home.
The use of pigeons for communications goes back thousands of years, but it was during the First World War that they began to be used for intelligence gathering.
During the Second World War, a little-known branch of the British Intelligence Service – the MI14 (d) – organized a secret pigeon service that dropped birds into a container with a parachute over occupied Europe. A questionnaire was attached. More than 1,000 pigeons returned with messages containing detailed information on V1 rocket launch sites and German radar stations.
A message from a resistance group called Leopold Vindictive produced a 12-page intelligence report sent directly to Churchill. After the war, a special "pigeon sub-committee" of the British Joint Intelligence Commission examined options for the Cold War. But while British operations were largely closed, the CIA took up the torch by exploiting the power of the pigeons.
The Tacana operation would be born from the work done in the 1960s on the uses of different animals. The records reveal that the CIA has formed a raven at the delivery and retrieval of small objects weighing up to 40 g on the windowsill of inaccessible buildings.
A flashing red laser beam was used to mark the target and a special lamp drew the bird back. On one occasion in Europe, the CIA secretly delivered a bird wiretapping device to a window (although no sound was captured by the intended target).
The CIA also examined whether migratory birds could be used to place sensors to detect whether the Soviet Union had tested chemical weapons. It also appears that there have been electrical brain stimulation tests to guide dogs at a distance, although many details remain confidential.
A previously reported operation called Acoustic Kitty involved placing listening devices inside a cat.
In the 1960s, records show that the CIA was planning to use dolphins for "harbor penetration", whether inhabited or not. One of the problems was handing over control from a coach who had worked with a dolphin to a field agent.
In Key West, Florida, a team attempted to use bottlenose dolphins for underwater attacks against enemy ships. Tests were also conducted to determine if dolphins could carry sensors to pick up the sounds of Soviet nuclear submarines or search for traces of radioactive or biological weapons in nearby facilities.
They also examined whether dolphins could retrieve or place packages on ships on the move.
In 1967, the CIA spent more than $ 600,000 (USD) on three programs: Oxygas for Dolphins, Axiolite for Birds, and Kechel for Dogs and Cats.
The details are sometimes comical. A record details training on the use of Canadian falcons on a boat before mentioning that they had tried using a cockatoo. "We do not know what the possibilities are with this creature," writes the author.
The pigeons proved to be the most effective and in the mid-1970s, the CIA began performing a series of test missions. One was above a prison, another at the Navy Yards in Washington DC.
The camera cost $ 2,000 and weighed only 35 grams, the harness less than 5 grams. Tests have shown that about half of the 140 images of a roll of film would be of good quality. The images show remarkably clean details of people walking and cars parked at the shipyard.
The experts found that the quality of the photographs was superior to those produced by the spy satellites operating at the time. One of the fears expressed during the tests was if a member of the public came across "a pigeon and a camera" and assumed that the government spied on itself. A complex cover has been prepared.
The intended mission was for pigeons to be used against "priority" intelligence targets in the Soviet Union. The records indicate that the birds would be secretly shipped to Moscow. The CIA has examined many ways to release them, perhaps under a thick coat or in a hole in the ground of a parked car.
They even examined whether the pigeons could be thrown by a side window while the car was traveling at a speed of 50 km / h. A pigeon would be launched a few kilometers from a target installation, then fly over it before returning to the place where he had been trained to be recognized as his home.
A memorandum of September 1976 indicates that a target had been chosen: the Leningrad shipyards which had built the most advanced Soviet submarines.
At this point, it was decided that the operation seemed feasible. But, what is tempting, is where the story of declassified files ends.
How many actual missions did the spy-pigeons perform and what information did they collect? This, apparently, is always secret.