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Jeffrey Richelson’s ninth and most recent book, The Wizards of Langley: Inside the CIA’s Directorate of Science and Technology, covers a subject that previously received little public attention: the DS&T’s engineers. Though not exactly the James Bond-style spooks generally associated with CIA work, they’re responsible for developing such exotic apparatus as satellites, spy planes, and eavesdropping devices.

The DS&T, which has historically accounted for an estimated one-third of the CIA’s total employment, earns high marks from Richelson for having created technologies that have “made enormous contributions to American security,” including the U-2 spy plane. But he also details some embarrassing missteps.

The DS&T, for instance, spent months in the ’70s assessing “remote viewing” techniques that psychics used to “sense” details about Soviet bases. About the same time, DS&T officials also sponsored a project dubbed “Acoustic Kitty,” which sought to train cats to listen to and transmit human conversations through antennae in their tails. The scientists figured that cats would be better than conventional bugging devices at filtering out background noise—but the project was a disaster. First, a specially outfitted feline walked off the job when it got hungry; then, during one test, the cat’s handlers released it in a park, only to watch helplessly as it got run over by a taxi. That sealed the project’s fate. “Some people in the directorate thought efforts like these were just silly nonsense,” Richelson said, in an August interview, “but others felt, ‘As long as the Soviets are doing this stuff, let’s not leave any stone unturned.’”

Richelson, who received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Rochester, has taught at the University of Texas at Austin and at American University. An Alexandria resident and now a senior fellow at the National Security Archive, the author—whose previous books have addressed a range of intelligence topics, including space and satellites—says the big challenge for the DS&T now is to continue attracting good personnel.

“In the past, what they did was often on the cutting edge of technology, and there was no place else to get that type of intellectual thrill,” he said. “Now, a lot of the cutting-edge work is done in the private sector. And Silicon Valley can offer a lot more money and stock options.” —Louis Jacobson