How The CIA Used Pigeons To Spy On Americans

( Pigeons had an extensive career delivering messages during World War I before they were used by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in 1977 to gain an edge in the Cold War, according to Atlas Obscura. Roman historian Pliny had reportedly been the first to describe the role of these birds in communication. The German army also explored how they could be used for reconnaissance.

Since the late 19th century, the United States had also been using pigeons, but Elizabeth Macalaster, author of “War Pigeons: Winged Couriers in the U.S. Military, 1878-1957” says that she could not find information that pigeons were used for reconnaissance. Then came the CIA.

Using pigeons for military operations was considered a humorous idea, however, in January 1976, that opinion changed when someone realized birds could be valuable in obtaining “photographic coverage of sensitive areas such as naval yards in Leningrad,” according to a CIA document.

James David, curator of National Security Space at the Smithsonian Institution said that people did not have the opportunity to get close to the naval yards in Russia, so that is where the pigeons could come in. By September 1976, the Office of Research and Development (ORD) had invested around $100,000 in training pigeons and designing harnesses and cameras for the operation.

Tests were conducted before their deployment, and soon the pigeons were flying around Andrews Air Force Base near Washington D.C. Then in February 1977, the CIA tested them out at the Navy Yard in Southeast D.C. VW Beetles were also modified to transport the pigeons and release them surreptitiously underneath a hole cut out in the floorboard.

While the capabilities of the American spy satellite GAMBIT-3 are still classified, the pigeons were able to provide a resolution of three-fourths of an inch. But Navy Yards were not the only thing pigeons reportedly captured.

In 1975, the New York Times criticized the CIA for experimenting on Americans. According to the National Security Archive, the CIA had “violated its charter for 25 years,” through “illegal wiretapping, domestic surveillance…and human experimentation.”