11 of the Strangest Plots Hatched by the CIA
Sex, drugs, and G.I. Joes? Just three of the very strange ways the CIA has reportedly attempted to carry out its work keeping America safe. Below are 11 of the weirdest, wildest, and (for the most part) unsuccessful CIA plots since the agency was founded in 1947.
1. The CIA tried to use psychedelic drugs to control minds.
If you enjoy the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, the lyrics of the Grateful Dead, or the play/film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, you might want to thank the CIA. Ginsberg, the Dead’s lyricist Robert Hunter, and Cuckoo’s author Ken Kesey all first received LSD thanks to a secret CIA program run by the chemist Sidney Gottlieb called MK-Ultra [PDF]. In the early 1950s, Gottlieb helped convince the agency to spend $240,000 on LSD in order to see if the drug (along with other substances like heroin) could be used to control the minds of users. According to author Stephen Kinzer, who wrote a book on the subject, the drugs were distributed to prisons, hospitals, and clinics, often under the guise of fake foundations, to research the effects. Some subjects dabbled in the drugs voluntarily—others, including members of the military, were injected without their knowledge. In the end, mind control remained elusive, but American literature, music, and theater were never the same.
2. The CIA tried to train people to harness their psychic abilities.
Here’s a fun word: psychoenergetics. It was the word the CIA used to describe some far-out ideas like “remote viewing,” the theory that a person could see what was happening in remote locations through their own mind. Project Star Gate [PDF], which began with the CIA and was later transferred to the Defense Intelligence Agency, was an attempt to harness this ability—along with other mental powers like telekinesis—for intelligence-gathering purposes. It didn’t work. And while no definitive cost for the program has ever been revealed, some reports place the price tag of all the tests and research at around $20 million over the course of 20 years. The program was documented in a book by Jon Ronson, which was later adapted into the 2009 George Clooney film, The Men Who Stare at Goats.
3. The CIA wanted to make Fidel Castro’s beard fall out.
There was no shortage of assassination plots against Fidel Castro during his lifetime, but one of the strangest plans the CIA hatched was simply meant to embarrass the Cuban leader by using thallium salts to make his beard fall out. Thallium is a toxic chemical element that can cause symptoms as far-ranging as abdominal pain and headaches to seizures, hair loss, and, eventually, death when a person is exposed to it. The goal was to sprinkle the thallium in Castro's shoes [PDF] during an overseas trip where it would be absorbed through his skin, causing him to lose his beard and robbing him of his machismo (taking his communist regime down in the process, apparently). The plot allegedly fell through when Castro canceled the trip.
4. The CIA wanted to use cats as spies.
Dubbed “Operation Acoustic Kitty,” this project involved surgically implanting microphones inside cats who could then secretly record audio conversations. To pull this off, transmitters and microphones were placed inside a cat's skull and ear canal, respectively, thanks to an hour-long operation. In a perfect world, the cats would then be able to rub against the legs of America's enemies and pick up valuable intel along the way. The entire project was abandoned in 1967 after a mic'd-up feline bolted out of a reconnaissance van and was reportedly run over by a taxi during its first field test.
5. The CIA wanted to make Osama Bin Laden action figures.
Around 2005, Donald Levine, who helped launch the blockbuster G.I. Joe line for Hasbro in 1964, was asked by the CIA to help develop an action figure of Osama bin Laden that would terrify young children and forever deter them from being amenable to his message. According to the Washington Post’s Adam Goldman, “the face of the figure was painted with a heat-dissolving material, designed to peel off and reveal a red-faced bin Laden who looked like a demon, with piercing green eyes and black facial markings.” The idea was rejected during the prototype stage—but one early model resurfaced at an auction in 2014.
6. The CIA used inflatable sex dolls to fool the KGB.
The idea here was that an agent in the passenger seat of a vehicle under surveillance could round a corner, jump out, and have an inflatable rubber sex doll immediately replace him, fooling his tail (if only briefly) and allowing him to escape undetected. To complete the charade, the dolls were stored inside unremarkable containers (one was housed in a fake birthday cake) and would be rigged to unfurl and blow up when needed. Aptly called a jack-in-the-box, or JIB, the dolls were modeled to look passably human and were actually used successfully in the ‘80s.
7. Howard Hughes helped the CIA recover a Soviet submarine.
So this one actually (sort of) worked and has a fun bit of trivia behind it. In 1968, a Soviet submarine armed with nuclear warheads suffered a mechanical failure and disappeared in the Pacific. The U.S. wanted to know exactly what the Soviets had lost—but how do you recover a 2000-ton sub that's more than 16,500 feet under water? The CIA toyed with ideas like rockets and balloons to bring it up, though those were quickly dismissed. Then came Howard Hughes, the eccentric and reclusive film, aviation, and engineering pioneer. Hughes agreed to help by pretending to send a vessel to search for “manganese nodules” as a cover story. In reality, Hughes's company used a 620-foot ship called the Hughes Glomar Explorer to recover the sub in the spring of 1974 (though they could only retrieve half of it). But here comes the fun part. Rolling Stone journalist Harriet Ann Phillippi sought a Freedom of Information Act request about the recovery efforts in 1976, to which the CIA responded with this now-famous phrase: We can “neither confirm nor deny” the existence of the operation. Today, the phrase is known as the “Glomar response.”
8. The CIA pretended to make a sci-fi film in Iran to help rescue hostages.
You'll recognize this plot from 2013's Argo, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture for dramatizing the efforts of the CIA to help six U.S. embassy staff members escape a revolutionary Iran. The agents did this by pretending to be part of the production for a sci-film called Lord of Light (which CIA agent Tony Mendez later renamed Argo). The movie was fake, but the agency used a real script and concept art—illustrated by comics legend Jack Kirby—from a film being pitched in Hollywood in order to make the operation seem more authentic. As unbelievable as it sounds, the plan worked—though the movie took its fair share of liberties.
9. The CIA wanted to use pigeons to take reconnaissance photos—in the 1970s.
This operation involved strapping a $2000 camera onto a pigeon and sending them over high-value Soviet targets to take photos that were allegedly better than what a spy plane could capture. The BBC suggests that this 1970s mission, named Tacana, might have actually been a success, though many documents relating to it are not yet declassified. It does, however, sound suspect: Everyone knows using birds is a sure way to fowl up any operation.
10. The CIA wanted to demoralize Soviet troops by air-dropping extra-large American condoms labeled “medium.”
How else are you going to broadcast your country's anatomical superiority? This one never made it past the initial (likely giggle-filled) planning stages, but that's probably for the best.
11. The CIA made a porno movie.
Using tales of sexual debauchery to discredit political leaders is a tradition that goes back to at least the Roman Empire. (Anyone who says history is boring has obviously never read Suetonius). Little wonder, then, that the CIA tried a similar tactic during the height of the Cold War by actually commissioning a pornographic film in the 1950s starring a body double wearing a lifelike mask of Indonesian President Sukarno, whose anti-Western sentiment and pro-communist leanings were beginning to agitate higher-ups in the U.S. According to some sources, the whole thing was actually filmed in Hollywood, and images from the production were circulated throughout political groups in Indonesia. Apparently, no one there really cared, so the CIA had bankrolled smut for nothing.