The CIA- the world’s second-most feared intelligence agency, first place naturally goes to the Russian FSB. But what the CIA lacks in technique versus its Russian competition, it more than makes up for in sheer crazy. Get ready to learn about the craziest CIA covert operations.
10. Spying is for the birds- literally
It’s the height of the Cold War, east versus west, democracy versus stalinism. With nuclear weapons aimed at each other’s throats, the US and Soviet Union are in a struggle for the very fate of the world itself. In this high stakes, winner-take-all, zero-sum game, the United States unveils its newest weapon- a pigeon.
Well, not just one pigeon, but thousands of them, all released in eastern Europe with the hopes they’ll drop sensors that will help the US learn where the Soviet Union is conducting chemical weapon tests. Pigeons were even trained to fly cameras over facilities, with surprisingly good quality images being returned.
But pigeons are far from the only birds enlisted to defeat the Reds, and ravens too are put to task fighting for freedom and the American way. These especially clever animals are trained to drop off listening devices on window sills that are otherwise inaccessible, and in at least one covert operation a red laser beam was used to guide a raven to a target, drop off the bug, and then return to its handler with the use of a special lamp.
Sadly that particular covert operation yielded no usable intelligence, as the bug failed to work properly, but the CIA would go on to successfully use birds in many still-classified covert operations. With the ability to fly loads up to 40 grams, there’s little doubt that in today’s age of smart, miniaturized electronics, birds are once more on the front lines of the CIA’s covert wars.
But the CIA’s next crazy covert operation truly takes things out of this world…
9. Flying saucers from… the Earth?
In the 1950s flying saucers were all the rage, and it seemed like everybody was seeing one every other day. With events like Roswell and the real-life flying saucer invasion of Washington though, we can hardly blame boomers for being afraid of aliens from outer space or south of the border.
During the height of flying saucer mania, the CIA and the Air Force both got an idea- what if there was something to flying saucers? If alien flying saucers could cross the void of space, surely they would do a pretty good job of flying around the earth, right? With generous funding from the federal government’s black budget, the CIA and Air Force began collaborating on a flying saucer shaped vehicle that could fly spy missions deep in the Soviet union and shoot down bombers- after all, what better cover for a secret CIA vehicle than making it look like an alien is piloting it?
Turns out there’s a reason UFOs are claimed to use all sorts of science fiction technology like magnetic levitation or even ESP- because without it they fly about as well as a drunk frisbee. After an unknown number of years in testing, the flying saucer program was finally canceled in 1961, as the design was deemed completely uncontrollable at high speeds and aerodynamically unstable.
The CIA is meant to protect Americans, but the next crazy covert operation made the CIA an enemy of the American people…
8. Operation Blame-The-Cubans
It’s 1962, and the Soviets have done the unthinkable- cooperate with Cuba to place Soviet military forces literally next-door to America… you know, sort of the way that the US had placed nuclear missiles in Turkey and on the Soviet Union’s doorstep. Something had to be done about Cuban/Soviet cooperation before the relationship got too chummy, and that something was an invasion.
Only one problem: how to justify an invasion of a tiny country that had absolutely nothing to do with the US? No worries, because the CIA quickly came to the rescue.
Proposed to President John F. Kennedy, who immediately rejected the idea and fired more than a few of the CIA’s top brass, Operation Northwoods was a convoluted plan to, in essence, carry out terrorist attacks all across the US, and blame them on Cuban operatives.
Plans included assassinations, the bombing of a restaurant in Washington D.C., riots, and other acts of terrorism. Basically, the CIA was seeking permission to go all Grand Theft Auto on the US and then blame it on the Cubans.
Thankfully Kennedy immediately shot down the proposal, and along with it the careers of several CIA personnel.
Who says the CIA doesn’t have a heart though? The next CIA covert operation was all about turning former enemies into close new friends…
7. Operation Paperclip
After long years of fighting Nazi Germany, one thing was clear- Nazis were terrible, but they were pretty brilliant about coming up with ways to kill people. With the freeze of the Cold War setting in, the United States desperately needed some of that good old fashioned Nazi murder know-how for itself.
Barely one year after the end of hostilities, US President authorized Operation Paperclip, handled by the Office of Strategic Services and predecessor to the CIA. The goal of Paper Clip was simple: lure or threaten former Nazi scientists into making the move to the United States and working for America. With the other option being getting swept up by Soviet KGB agents and forced to make missiles in Siberia, it wasn’t exactly a hard sell getting Nazi scientists to make the move out to sunny California.
The project remains one of the most controversial aspects of the post-World War II period, as many Nazi scientists who should have rightly been tried as war criminals were instead granted a free pass to live a very comfortable life in the US in exchange for their genius.
One man in particular, Wernher von Braun, helped establish the American space program and masterminded the Apollo missions- but received lifelong criticism for his role in developing V2 rockets to be used on civilians in Britain. The next CIA crazy covert operation is one they don’t want you learning about, so feel free to shut this video off now… no, really, Uncle Sam would thank you.
6. Let the CIA do your thinking for you
The Cold War was a terrifying time for the world, with the US and Soviet Union locked in a bid for global supremacy. There was just one problem: why should an auto plant worker from Detroit, or a farmer from the Russian Urals care? What stake did the average Soviet or American citizen really have in the world’s greatest international penis measuring contest to date?
Turns out the average joe on either side of the Iron Curtain had little stake in the posturing between east and west, but the CIA and KGB were here to fix that. Operation Mockingbird was a still little understood covert operation undertaken by the CIA to convince Americans that Russians were bad.
While the full extent of the CIA’s reach is still not known, a former investigation in the 1970s revealed 50 journalists at the country’s most influential newspapers all had secret links to the CIA, and were compensated to run CIA approved articles.
The program was eventually shut down for, ironically, mirroring the exact same press manipulation and intimidation tactics that the Soviets used and freedom-loving, apple pie eating Americans were supposed to abhor. Still, rumors persist to this day that the program never really ended, with QAnon believers now claiming that every headline they don’t like is part of Operation Mockingbird.
Like survival challenges, pooping in the woods, and learning to fight like a guerilla fighter? Well then the Cold War era CIA sure had a job for you…
5. The CIA created the original doomsday preppers
During the Cold War nothing kept the CIA awake at night more than the thought of Soviet tanks steamrolling the free countries of Western Europe. The paranoia of a Soviet invasion was so high that the CIA and US military, along with NATO members, cooperated in the creation of a top secret counter-invasion force.
Codenamed Operation Gladio, members of NATO set about creating secret armies, personnel from all walks of life who would remain behind in case of Soviet invasion and engage in a guerilla war of resistance.
The plan was simple- without using nuclear weapons to stop them, Soviet armies would easily reach all the way to France before the US could transfer the bulk of its forces to Europe. Rather than fight a certain-to-be-lost battle, nations all over the border with the Soviet bloc would fight retreating actions, while leaving behind large amounts of clandestine forces. Once the Soviets swept past them, these secret armies would rise up to wreak havoc on Soviet supply and communication lines, grinding the Soviet advance to a halt.
Operation Gladio was so secret that even some of the highest ranking members of government and military in the nations these secret armies were staged in had no idea of their existence. It would only be at the end of the Cold War that the secret of these ghost armies would finally be revealed.
Ironically, the world would also learn that despite all the paranoia, the Soviet Union didn’t have a single plan to ever preemptively invade Western Europe, and was in fact just as terrified as the West that NATO would invade it first.
The next crazy CIA covert operation was definitely the cat’s meow…
4. Eavesdropping Kitties
The internet loves cats, this is fact. Turns out, the CIA also loves cats- or at least used to. Operation Acoustic Kitty may have sounded like a traditional code name meant to throw off anyone who learned its name as to its true nature, but for once, this codename was spot on.
Gathering intelligence was of utmost importance during the Cold War, and the best way to do that was to eavesdrop on people. Problem is, trained spies are pretty good at realizing they’re being listened to, and technology to help detect bugs and even long-range listening devices was getting better and better every passing year.
Enter the humble kitty cat.
At some point, a CIA R&D specialist with way too much time on their hands got the brilliant idea of using cats to spy on people. After all, cats are pretty innocuous, and unless you’re suffering from crippling mental illness, you’re not likely to think your cat is spying on you.
To accomplish the task of creating spy kitties, the CIA surgically implanted microphones onto cats, with a wire leading to a transmitter implanted on the cat’s tail. Unsurprisingly, the plan met with little success, as training the cats and getting them to do what they were told to do proved entirely too difficult even for a global spy agency like the CIA.
Literally any cat owner could’ve told them that though and saved the US government millions of dollars. Also the first test cat was apparently run over in its first field trial, just seconds after being released- though the CIA continues to deny said kitty was actually killed.
Let’s face it, when the Cold War started the Soviet Union didn’t just have the better spy agency, they had better technology- but the CIA was determined to change that…
3. ‘Borrowing’ A Soviet Satellite
In the 1960s it was clear that the Soviets were winning the space race, with America coming in at a distant second. The Soviets didn’t just trumpet their accomplishments in space though, they decided to rub it in America’s face by putting their Lunik satellite on a world tour. As the first spacecraft to approach the moon and return, it represented the state of the art at the time, and the cutting edge of human exploration.
While the Lunik was on tour, the CIA decided it would ‘borrow’ the spacecraft for a night, and take the entire thing apart bolt by bolt to learn everything it could about Soviet space engineering. The truck carrying the satellite was intercepted and the driver ‘encouraged’ to take the night off at a local hotel, under CIA guard.
Meanwhile, CIA agents and American engineers went to work on the Lunik. Over the course of the night they photographed every square inch of the spacecraft, though sadly, most of the electronics were missing. The next morning the original driver was returned and compensated for his silence.
The next crazy CIA covert operation was perhaps, their most infamous- even if it was a complete failure…
2. Operation Kill Castro
There’s perhaps few rivalries in history more famous than that of the CIA and Fidel Castro. For years the CIA did its best to kill him, and yet Castro would go on to die peacefully at a ripe old age, having outlived many of the agents who’s job had been to end his life.
Known as Operation Mongoose, for almost three years the CIA tried everything in its power to kill Castro, floating such insane ideas as exploding sea shells, diving suits laced with poisonous fungus, and of course, exploding cigars. The intensity of the CIA’s attempts to kill Castro actually ended up leading to the creation of his own cigar company, to ensure the safety and security of Castro’s beloved cigars.
Plot after plot was either attempted or brainstormed and rejected as impractical. One attempt to poison his shoes as he left them out for cleaning by hotel staff was canceled at the last minute because Castro was at the time visiting the UN, and it was believed it would make the US look bad if Castro bit the dust as he was attending a peaceful international assembly.
Another plot involved training a former lover to assassinate him in private, and after months of preparation and training by the CIA, the lover was sent back to Cuba and managed to spend the night with him… only to fall back in love with him and admit to the entire plot.
The true length and breadth of the insanity that the CIA explored in their attempt to kill Castro may never be known, but the plots that are public knowledge hint at a legacy of incredibly inventive assassination attempts, which all failed or were impractical in hilarious ways.
Our number one crazy CIA covert operation is one who’s terrible legacy will never, ever truly be known…
At last we have it, the single most insane CIA covert operation ever attempted- that we know of anyways. Known as MK-Ultra, the CIA’s attempt to develop psychic powers is legendary, and without a doubt the most bat-shit crazy waste of taxpayer money in US history.
Officially running for twenty years, MK-Ultra sought every way conceivable to control a subject’s mind. Nothing was out of the question, and no idea was too insane to try. Claims by self-proclaimed psychics and mentalists were explored, their techniques analyzed and scrutinized. Chemists toiled for years to create cocktails of chemicals capable of controlling a person’s mind. Even zombie drugs used by voodoo practitioners were explored.
Nothing was off limits during the age of MK-Ultra, though one drug in particular drew a great deal of attention: LSD. The CIA explored every possible use of LSD for the purpose of making enemy spies compliant, and willing to give up their secrets. It was no secret that the agency would routinely expose its own agents to LSD in a bid to examine its effects, once even dosing an entire office party celebrating a birthday.
The full range and extent of MK-Ultra may never be known, as when the rest of the government started getting wind of the insanity the CIA was engaged in, not to mention the dubious moral nature of many of its experiments, the CIA immediately began destroying records.
To this day nobody knows just how far the CIA took their mind-control experiments- or what success they may have found- but the legacy of MK-Ultra is a murky one indeed, with many deaths and broken lives blamed on the CIA’s secret experiments.
Featured image: Envato.com & Seal of the Central Intelligence Agency, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons