Can Squirrels Spy for People? Iran Thinks So Iranian news agencies this week reported the capture of 14 squirrels equipped with espionage systems at the border. Experts discuss other attempts to use animals in intelligence gathering and whether squirrels can be counted on to retrieve useful information.
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Can Squirrels Spy for People? Iran Thinks So

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Can Squirrels Spy for People? Iran Thinks So

Can Squirrels Spy for People? Iran Thinks So

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

If SIGINT means SIGnals INTelligence Intercepting Communications and HUMINT means HUMan INTelligence, the stuff that spies knew, then here is a story about RODINT. Earlier this month, BBC monitoring picked up an Iranian news story that vigilant Iranian forces had intercepted 14 spy squirrels who had infiltrated their border to spy for the U.S. The squirrels, which weigh a pound and a half each, were supposedly outfitted with espionage devices. We were so intrigued by this story that we called some people in the know like Bob Baer, who used to be spy and now writes about them in novels like "Blow the House Down."

Mr. BOB BAER (Former Case Officer, CIA): Spent 21 years in CIA, primarily chasing Iranians and Iranian-backed terrorist all over the Middle East.

SIEGEL: How many squirrels did you worked with at the CIA?

Mr. BAER: How many squirrels?

SIEGEL: Yeah.

Mr. BAER: I was never put in charge of the squirrels. It was always considered too important.

SIEGEL: Can you imagine dispatching a squirrel with a GPS and an eavesdropping device over the border to check something out?

Mr. BAER: I know it's complete idiocy. You can't use squirrels for espionage.

SIEGEL: Well, you say, of course, an ex-CIA guy would deny the squirrel story. What about someone who writes about spooks from the outside like James Bamford?

Mr. JAMES BAMFORD (Journalist): You know, if that works, that's probably very cost-effective and more power to them. The CIA is actually, have been working on insects for a very long time. I was in CIA headquarters a while back and went to the museum, and they actually have a dragonfly that they turned into a spy machine, at one point. It was a dragonfly insectohopper, they called it, and it was a micro, a manned aerial vehicle that was used to collect intelligence. They also had a robot fish they called Charlie they developed to collect underwater intelligence. So the CIA has been working on insects and animals for quite a while.

SIEGEL: Well, so much for intelligence experts. We said we talked to a squirrel expert. And John Koprowski is professor of wildlife at the University of Arizona and co-author of "North American Tree Squirrels." Professor Koprowski, when we hear about pound and a half squirrels, what does that say to you?

Professor JOHN KOPROWSKI (Wildlife, University of Arizona): That's a large squirrel.

SIEGEL: You know a lot about squirrels.

Prof. KOPROWSKI: Probably too much.

SIEGEL: Would you trust one to undertake a secret mission?

Prof. KOPROWSKI: I've been studying them for about 26 years, and I think that their elusiveness in the field, it would be incredibly difficult to, kind of, funnel that and to channel that elusiveness in a creative way, I think.

SIEGEL: It has free spirits, not cut out for disciplined activity?

Prof. KOPROWSKI: That's right.

SIEGEL: Well actually, another ex-CIA man we called up, Milt Bearden, did remind us of acoustic kitty, an experimental eavesdropping cat that the CIA tried to train and thereby hangs a tail, just not such a bushy one.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: Now, right now you're probably wondering who played that music that so perfectly accompanies the story about daring spy squirrels? Who make sure that this broadcast leaves the studio with the seamlessness that no one would anticipate after seeing its elements enter the studio? Well, that would be our director. And since 1989, that has been Bob Boilen.

He's got the best ears in the building and nerves that have survived every conceivable disaster. And today is Bob's last day on the program. His online show, All Songs Considered, has become so successful it has turned into a full time job.

To Bob, thank you for so many years in the control room. I'll miss you, we'll all miss you, and as a special goodbye present, I will give the engineers the last queue, and you can just sit back. Ready with your fades, too? And fade under.

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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