The Central Intelligence Agency secretly developed an Osama bin Laden action figure whose face peeled off to reveal a scary devil beneath, according to an account first published this week in The Washington Post.
The 2005 effort was meant to produce a toy that could be distributed in Afghanistan. The point was to frighten children and their parents and lower their esteem for the then-hidden Al Qaeda leader, said the Post.
The project was code-named “Devil Eyes” and progressed to at least the prototype stage. Some sources said a substantial number of the figures – whose face reportedly changed when exposed to heat – were actually produced at a factory in China.
Does that sound like an off-beat approach to psychological warfare operations? Sure, but it also sounds like the CIA. In the past the agency has occasionally hatched humorous, bizarre, or downright wacky plans to fulfill a variety of missions. In the 1960s and ‘70s the orders for these things often came directly from the CIA’s cadre of top career officials.
“These were men who seem to have pictured themselves as figures out of a Fitzgerald novel. As was true of so many Fitzgerald characters, there was a great deal of immaturity in them: a great deal of the undergraduate fraternity house,” wrote lawyer and historian David Fromkin in a 1996 Foreign Affairs article on the CIA’s social history.
Such attitudes persisted in some parts of the agency at least through the late stages of the Cold War. We remember one agency clandestine agent trainee repeating a story an instructor had recounted, which involved the CIA placing an ad in a Central American newspaper purporting to be from the local Soviet legation. The embassy was paying for dead cats, according to the ad.
Locals showed up with the said cats to collect their money, but were turned away by the Soviets. Angry, they began pitching dead cats over the USSR embassy walls.
This spy vs. spy story may be apocryphal. But here are three CIA projects for which documentary evidence exists:
In the 1950s, the CIA produced a pornographic film starring an actor made up to resemble Indonesian President Sukarno. The idea was to discredit Sukarno in the eyes of his countrymen, according to the 1976 memoir of a CIA officer, Joseph Burkholder Smith, as the Indonesian leader was viewed as insufficiently pro-West at the time.
The film, titled “Happy Days” was made, and still photos of the action where produced for distribution in the region, but it’s unclear whether they were ever actually handed out.
According to a 2010 Washington Post story, the CIA considered doing something similar with a Saddam Hussein lookalike during the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but that plan never got past the talking stage.
The CIA implanted a listening device and transmitter in a cat in an attempt to eavesdrop on suspected Soviet agents, according to a 1967 agency report on the effort posted by the National Security Archive.
Having successfully created a four-footed, living bug, the agency set out to test their cat in a Washington park. They set it down and tried to direct it toward a park bench where two men were engaged in conversation, but sadly, the cat was run over by a taxi before it could get there, according to Victor Marchetti, a former special assistant to the CIA Director.
One thing agency technicians discovered during this project was that cats have a mind of their own and are difficult to place near secret conversations. The 1967 report concluded that pursuing the approach “would not be practical.”
The exploding seashell
Probably the most famous of all CIA plots was not one scheme, but many: Operation Mongoose, the covert operation against Cuban President Fidel Castro.
Hatched by the Kennedy administration in the wake of the Bay of Pigs embarrassment, Operation Mongoose, also known generally as the “Cuban Project,” considered placing a bomb inside a sea shell in an area where Castro was known to enjoy scuba diving. This was dropped after an internal agency debate on such questions as whether it was possible to ensure Castro would be the person to pick the shell up, according to journalist Thomas Powers’ classic book on former CIA chief Richard Helms, “Helms and the Agency: The Man Who Kept the Secrets.”
Then agency technicians hit on the idea of giving Castro a gift: a poisoned wet suit. They went so far as to produce a suit contaminated with fungal spores meant to cause a chronic skin disease. But this plan also foundered on practical concerns, and eventually the suit was destroyed, according to Powers.