Secret armies also existed in the United States during the Cold War. In 2014, declassified documents from the U.S. Air Force and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) revealed a plan dreamed up in 1950 for a "covert intelligence and evasion and escape operation in Alaska."
Nicknamed "Operation Washtub," the plan called for the training of ordinary Alaskans in coding, decoding and other espionage techniques so that they could spy on the enemy in the event of a Soviet invasion of Alaska. While such an invasion never occurred, a total of 89 "agents" were trained for this purpose, according to news reports.
Oleg Penkovsky was a high-ranking Soviet military intelligence officer who worked as a spy for the United States and Great Britain during the Cold War. Best known for his role in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, Penkovsky supplied the U.S. government with valuable details about the capabilities of Soviet missiles that had been installed in Cuba.
The spy was eventually sniffed out by his fellow Soviet intelligence officers, charged with treason and executed in 1963. However, there are some people who believe that Penkovsky was just a decoy who may have relayed false information about Soviet arms capabilities to U.S. intelligence agents. Some point to declassified documents outlining the intelligence provided by Penkovsky as proof that the spy's loyalty was really to the Soviet Union.
A report from 1967 shows that the CIA spent millions of dollars in an attempt to train domesticated cats to spy on the Soviet Union. Yes, you read that correctly. Nicknamed Acoustic Kitty, the program involved implanting electronic spying equipment into live cats and then training them to "eavesdrop" on unsuspecting Cold War rivals.
If you don't believe this ridiculous program existed, you can read more about it in this memorandum published by the National Security Archive.
Greenland's Lost Bomb
In 1968, a U.S. B-52 bomber carrying four hydrogen bombs on a routine (but secret) mission crashed near Thule Air Base in Greenland. In the aftermath of the crash, American and Danish officials launched a project to clean up radioactive debris and collect the scattered pieces of the nuclear bombs. However, for years later, news reports out of Denmark and the U.S. questioned whether all four bombs had really been located. [Photos: Top-Secret, Cold War-Era Military Base in Greenland]
In 2008, the BBC published an article based on declassified documents regarding the Thule accident, asserting that one of the four hydrogen bombs was never recovered from the crash site. This claim by a respected publication led the Danish prime minister to request a new investigation of the declassified documents used for the BBC report. That investigation, led by Danish scholar Svend Aage Christensen, found that the BBC's report was not based on any new declassified information (it drew from information that had previously been declassified) and that all four weapons had, in fact, been destroyed during the crash in 1968, according to the National Security Archive.
Before the civilian space organization NASA put the first astronaut on the moon in 1969, at least two U.S. military organizations drew up plans for establishing strategic lunar military outposts. In 1959, the U.S. Army drew up a proposal for a "manned military" base on the moon. That proposal, which was submitted by the Army's chief of research and development, was dubbed Project Horizon and would "develop and protect potential United States interest on the moon," according to declassified documents.
Another program, this one developed by the U.S. Air Force, sought to establish a "Lunar Based Earth Bombardment System" that met specific military requirements. Another Air Force study, this one submitted in 1959, involved detonating a nuclear weapon on the moon. The study was spearheaded by Leonard Reiffel, then a physicist at the Illinois Institute of Technology, and also included contributions from the astrophysicist Carl Sagan. In a 2010 interview with The New York Times, Reifell said that the "foremost intent [of the nuclear detonation] was to impress the world with the prowess of the United States."
Mapimi Silent Zone
A declassified document could help clear up some urban legends at one of Mexico's most bizarre tourist traps. The so-called Mapimí Silent Zone is a small stretch of desert in Durango, Mexico, where, according to local legend, radio waves cannot be transmitted. Often compared to the Bermuda Triangle, Mapimí is frequented by tourists looking for a paranormal adventure.
But the real reason that Mapimí is an interesting location has nothing to do with aliens or paranormal energy — it has to do with a big mistake by the U.S. Air Force. In 1970, an ATHENA V-123-D rocket carrying two small vials of cobalt 57 (a radioactive isotope that is sometimes used in salted bombs) crashed in the Durango desert. The rocket was supposed to land in New Mexico, according to documents declassified in 2013. Local legends may have sprung up as a result of this Air Force flop.
Iran Flight 655
In 1988, a U.S. warship in the Persian Gulf shot down an Iranian civilian aircraft en route to Dubai, killing all 290 passengers on board. Navy personnel incorrectly identified the civilian plane as an Iranian fighter jet before launching the missile that took down the flight, according to declassified documents.
The U.S. reached a settlement with Iran in 1996 in which it agreed to pay $61.8 million to compensate families of the Iranian victims. However, the U.S. government never issued an apology. The Pentagon conducted a now-declassified official investigation into the incident in 1988 and did not find fault with the naval officers who brought down Flight 655.
However, in the wake of the investigation by the Department of Defense, several journalists pointed out discrepancies between the official report and later accounts of what occurred. For example, the flight was originally said to have deviated from its standard route, but this was later found to be false. The report also states that the warship was operating in international waters at the time of the missile launch, when it was in fact operating in Iranian territorial waters.
Kidnapping of the Lunik
Sometimes, declassified documents read like a scene out of a James Bond film. That's the case with this document, titled "The Kidnapping of the Lunik." It tells the story of a CIA-led mission to "borrow" a Soviet lunar satellite for just one night.
The so-called kidnapping occurred in the early 1960s, at the height of the U.S.-Soviet space race. To make it clear that they were winning this race, the Soviets launched a multinational exhibition of their Lunik satellite, the first spacecraft to reach the vicinity of the Earth's moon. [Top 10 Soviet and Russian Space Missions]
One night, undercover CIA agents convinced the truck driver who transported the satellite from city to city to get some rest at a nearby hotel and leave the satellite in their care, the documents revealed. They then "borrowed" the Soviet orbiter — taking it apart and photographing its components before putting it back on the truck. There was no indication that the Soviets knew what had happened that fateful night, according to the declassified documents.
In 1967, in the midst of the Six-Day War (a conflict between Israel and its neighboring Arab states), Israeli aircraft attacked the USS Liberty, a ship gathering intelligence for the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA). Thirty-four Americans were killed in the attack and 171 more were injured. But was the attack intentional?
Many people believe that the Israeli government meant to open fire on the so-called "spy ship" to prevent it from intercepting sensitive information about upcoming battles, according to the declassified NSA report. But official investigations by both U.S. and Israeli agencies concluded that the attack was not deliberate, with pilots confirming that they believed the USS Liberty to be an enemy ship. This declassified NSA report explains the agency's position on the contentious issue.
FBI Surveillance Planes
In 2015, the AP broke the news of an FBI surveillance program that uses small aircraft to spy on suspects on the ground. The planes carry video and cellphone surveillance technology and are registered to fictitious companies. When the AP released its report in June 2015, the planes had been observed above more than 30 cities in 11 U.S. states in a 30-day period.
While the FBI told the AP that its aerial surveillance program is not a secret, details about what information the planes collect is highly censored in publicly available documents, according to the AP. The report also states that the FBI operates these planes without judicial approval. One document, obtained by the National Security Archive, shows the names and addresses of the fictitious companies that operate the planes. NSA expert and historian Matthew M. Aid also created a list of the aircraft that are used in this FBI "air force."