, The Associated Press 2003-12-26
When the CIA's secret gadget-makers invented a listening device for the Asian jungles, they disguised it so the enemy wouldn't be tempted to pick it up and examine it: The device looked like tiger droppings.The guise worked. Who would touch such a thing? The fist-sized, brown transmitter detected troop movements along the trails during fighting in Vietnam, a quiet success for a little-known group of researchers inside the world's premier intelligence agency.
The CIA's Directorate of Science and Technology is celebrating its 40th anniversary by revealing a few dozen of its secrets for a new museum inside its headquarters near Washington.
Keith Melton, a leading historian of intelligence, calls it "the finest spy musuem you'll never see." It is accessible only to CIA employees and guests admitted to those closed quarters.
Besides the jungle transmitter, the exhibits include a robotic catfish, a remote-controlled dragonfly and a camera strapped to the chests of pigeons and released over enemy targets in the 1970s. The secret gadgets currently used by CIA are left to the imagination of visitors.
The pigeons' missions remain classified, made possible only after the CIA secretly developed a camera weighing only as much as a few coins. An earlier test with a heavier camera in the skies over Washington failed after two days when the overburdened pigeon was forced to walk home.
"People don't think of a pigeon as being anything more than a rodent on top of a building," said Pat Avery of Newalla, Okla., who runs the National Pigeon Association and loves to recount decades-old exploits by famous military pigeons such as "Spike" and "Big Tom."
But as surveillance technology improved, the need for CIA pigeons diminished. "They're pretty passe now," she said.
Agency lore holds that a so-called "High Standard" pistol on display was so quiet that William "Wild Bill" Donovan, founder of the agency that became the CIA, pulled the trigger inside the White House to demonstrate for Franklin D. Roosevelt, who never heard a shot. For years, the .22-caliber was standard issue among CIA employees.
"The president was on the phone at the time, so Donovan proceeded to fire the entire magazine, 10 rounds, into the bag of sand in the Oval Office, then placed the smoking-hot weapon on the desk and told him what he had done," said Toni Hiley, the curator for the CIA museum.
In 2000, the CIA built a catfish it calls "Charlie," a remarkably realistic swimming robot. The spy agency still won't disclose much about its mission, but experts speculated it collects water samples near suspected chemical or nuclear plants.
One outside scientist consulted by The Associated Press said the catfish robot was so realistic -- except for pectoral fins made slightly too large -- that it might be eaten by predators while on its cloak-and-dagger missions. The AP obtained a videotape from CIA of the catfish swimming during one test.
"A lot of things in the wild like to eat those," said Jimmy Avery, an aquaculture professor at Mississippi State University who watched the video at AP's request. He said Charlie was apparently made to resemble a channel catfish commonly found in rivers worldwide. "When you look at it from above, it would be difficult to pick that out from any kind of real catfish."
The CIA isn't showing off just its successes. It invented a remote-controlled dragonfly for delivering tiny listening devices outside windows: a bug carrying a bug. But the so-called "insectothopter," with a miniature engine, built by a watchmaker, couldn't fly straight in winds and didn't work out.
The agency's D-21 "Tagboard" unmanned jet was kept secret until the late 1970s. Designed to fly off the back of CIA's version of the superfast SR-71 "Blackbird" surveillance jet, Tagboard cruised more than 17 miles high, taking photographs over Cold War lands at nearly 2,200 miles per hour.
But over four missions, the CIA once failed to recover the drone's film canister before it dropped into the ocean. Another drone crashed in Siberia. CIA crewman Ray Torrick died in one launch attempt. "It wasn't a hugely successful program," Hiley said.
The Science and Technology Directorate is among the CIA's largest units. It was held in highest esteem for more than a dozen years until 1976, but experts say its internal influence with the CIA director has declined since.
"They've been very clever; they have not stuck to simply what would be the traditional and obvious means of intelligence collection," said Jeffrey T. Richelson, who wrote a book about the directorate in 2001. "If they're being successful, they'll probably have devices more clever and harder to detect than in the past."