Website Reveals Special Agent Charlie the Robot Catfish

CIA website reveals special agent Charlie the robot catfish… and the bizarre real-life gadgets used by secret agents

It’s the sort of idea that would be laughed out of any plot for a spy film: Secret agents using a radio-controlled robot catfish to swim up to their enemies and collect information.

Yet, unbelievably, the Central Intelligence Agency dreamed up such a device in the Seventies, called Charlie – and has now revealed it and other stranger-than-fiction gadgets on a new website.

The agency simultaneously launched a website and pages on YouTube and Flickr last week, revealing the sorts of equipment that would leave James Bond’s Q Branch green with envy.

CIA robot fish

Meet ‘Charlie’: The agency’s Office of Advanced Technologies and Programs developed this Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (UUV) to study aquatic robot technology. ‘Charlie’ contains a pressure hull, ballast system, communications system, and a propulsion system in the tail

CIA Insectothopter

Dragonfly spy: Another device from the Office of Research and Development (wow, what were those guys on?) is the ‘Insectothopter’. This Unmanned Aerial Vehicle is the grandfather of the modern-day drone

The agency says the sites allow visitors to ‘find new ways to connect to a broad array of Agency content’.

The YouTube channel:

a has a range of unintentionally amusing ‘tours’ and potted histories of the spy agency.

But by far and away the most intriguing is its Flickr stream , which shows off some of the weird and wonderful gadgets employed since the Second World War.

CIA letter removal device

Special delivery: The ‘letter removal device’ was used in World War II to read information without the sender or the recipient knowing that their communications were being intercepted

CIA letter removal device

Rolled up: The device’s pincers could be inserted into the envelope without breaking its seal, then the letter rolled around the pincers and removed for reading

Among them are the usual spy kit – miniature cameras, listening devices, code-breaking machines – and then there are things that not even the most inspired conspiracy theorist could think of.

One of the most ingenious is a ‘letter removal device’, a pincer-like device that can be inserted into the side of an envelope without opening it.

The contents of the envelope can then be rolled around the pincer and removed for reading. After the information has been gleaned, the letter can be re-inserted into the envelope and delivered as normal.

CIA pigeon cameraCIA microdot camera

Cameras, with a twist: The pigeon camera was attached to a poor bird (hopefully not by the Velcro) trained to fly over enemy targets, while the microdot camera’s film could be hidden in a period at the end of a sentence

CIA matchbox camera

Size matters: The matchbox camera, as its name suggests, was developed by the Eastman Kodak Company for the predecessor to the CIA, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS)

CIA tobacco pouch camera

Smoke and shutters: A miniature 35mm film camera manufactured in Switzerland is concealed in this modified tobacco pouch. A spring-wound mechanism advances the film between exposures

Dressed to kill: An intelligence officer’s clothing, accessories, and behaviour must be as unremarkable as possible so they can blend inCIA clothing

Although the letter removal device was a deceptively simple bit of engineering, the department that devised it was clearly more imaginative than the department that named it.

There’s ‘Charlie’, a radio-controlled robotic catfish with communications equipment, and an equally ingenious robotic dragonfly – or ‘insectothopter’.

Both were developed by the agency’s Office of Research and Development in the 1970s, in a bid to ‘explore the concept of intelligence collection by miniaturised platforms’.

Whether Charlie was ever used to gather information is something that the CIA is keeping close to its chest. But it’s safe to say that the insectothopter remained a theoretical device – considering that even the smallest camera of the day would have been twice its size and at least three times the weight.

And, with that in mind, spare a thought for the poor pigeon that had to lug around the agency’s ‘pigeon camera’ – a bulky device that does exactly what its name suggests.

Strapped to a bird trained to fly over enemy positions or sensitive areas, the camera would take photos at regular intervals and then be returned to the bird’s handler for the film to be recovered and processed.

Of course, the CIA is still not revealing its deeper secrets – like whether Elvis is still alive – but these new sites offer a fascinating insight into its history and techniques.

CIA 'Belly Buster' drill CIA fake silver dollar

Must-have accessories: The ‘Belly Buster’, a hand-cranked drill held firmly against the stomach, could drill holes for listening devices into masonry, while the hollow silver dollar was an almost undetectable hiding place

CIA CaltropCIA dead drop spike

Spikes like us: The caltrop, no matter how it was tossed, would land with one of its four prongs up to flatten tyres, while the ‘dead drop’ spike was used to push communication into the ground at a pre-arranged spot


Last but not least: A CIA identity card, this one belonging to Allen W. Dulles, an OSS director and the first civilian and the longest-serving director of the agency. Resource