Espionage Is in the Air

As Miami's Cuban spy trial makes clear, the airwaves are full of intrigue, and all you need is a radio

In this high-tech era of worldwide Internet connections and satellite uplinks, an age when even junior-high kids are carrying cell phones, who on Earth still listens to fusty old shortwave radios? Spies, that's who. As the ongoing espionage trial of the Wasp Network of Cuban spies definitively reveals, cold war cloak-and-dagger intrigues are alive and well in Miami -- and that dinosaur of the communications spectrum, the shortwave radio, remains a key link between Cuban intelligence operatives on both sides of the Florida Straits.

None of this is a surprise to Chris Smolinski, a 34-year-old Baltimore software engineer who's spent much of his free time over the past two decades listening to the mysterious transmissions that continually pulse out of Havana.

"I was fourteen and had just gotten a shortwave radio," Smolinski recalls. "I was tuning in stations like the BBC and Radio Moscow, and then one day I just discovered someone reading off numbers." Twenty years later those strange successions of spoken numbers are still filling the ether, though Smolinski is hardly alone in his fascination with them. The Spooks e-mail list he runs has several hundred subscribers from around the globe, all listening in, jotting down, and attempting to make sense of these so-called numbers stations.

Of course you didn't have to be a Spooks member to hear the Nineties broadcasts currently being presented as evidence of Cuba's subterfuge in a downtown Miami courtroom. All you needed was a shortwave radio, and not even a very powerful one at that. Smolinski notes with some amusement that many Spooks members use much more powerful receivers than the hand-held Sony devices in the Cuban spies' possession when they were arrested.

Had you been living on the Eastern seaboard of the United States and simply flipped on your radio at the scheduled time and frequency, you would have heard the same thing the Wasp Network did: A young woman's voice would sharply announce in Spanish: ¡Atención! Then she would begin reciting five-digit strings of numbers. Both Spooks devotees and the Cuban spies in Miami were feverishly copying down the same sets of numbers, but as the Spooks crowd was left to ponder the latest installment of their very own X-File, the spies were punching those numbers into a computer program on their laptops. Thus began a decryption process, as the program changed these numbers into letters of the alphabet.

It may seem odd for Cuba to have its secret transmissions hiding in plain sight, able to be heard by virtually anyone. And if the ongoing broadcast of these numbers is any indication, Cuba already has inserted anew Wasp Network into South Florida to replace its captured spies. But the simplicity of a numbers station also is its strength. Unlike telephone, e-mail, and Net connections, receiving a radio signal leaves no fingerprint, no hint as to where the recipient might be physically located. And with the numbers-to-letters code known only to the spy and his handlers -- and with that code changing with each broadcast -- the secret messages they contain are theoretically unbreakable. Unbreakable, that is, unless you were able to make a copy of the same computer decryption program, which is exactly what FBI agents did in 1995 as they surreptitiously broke into at least one of the spies' apartments, allowing them to subsequently decipher the shortwave broadcasts the unknowing Cubans continued to receive until they were arrested in September 1998.

"Someone on the Spooks list had already cracked the code for a repeated transmission [from Havana to Miami] if it was received garbled," Smolinski notes with a hint of pride. "Still it's nice to know we were right," he adds, referring to the reams of spy messages freshly declassified by the FBI for use as prosecutorial trial evidence. Now Smolinski can play before-and-after, matching up his own recordings of the original spy broadcasts with their decoded instructions to get chummy with American military personnel at the Boca Chica air base ("prioritize and continue to strengthen friendship with Joe and Dennis"), infiltrate the staffs of local Cuban-exile politicians Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, as well as the anti-Castro airborne group Brothers to the Rescue ("Under no circumstances should [agents] German nor Castor fly with BTTR or another organization on days 24, 25, 26, and 27"). Not least important was this reminder: "Congratulate all the female comrades for International Day of the Woman."

Shortwave spy broadcasts are hardly a one-way street. The U.S. government maintains its own array of numbers stations transmitting to the rest of the world (some in Spanish, some in English), using essentially the same pattern as Cuba: strings of recited numbers. Their shadowy existence finally was nailed down by William Godby, a retired naval intelligence officer who adopted the tongue-in-cheek alias Havana Moon because of his Spooks-styled obsession with spy numbers stations. In the late Eighties he headed for South Florida, and over the course of several drives up and down U.S. 1, he used signal-direction-finding equipment to trace numbers broadcasts to antennae setups at the West Palm Beach airport, in nearby Tequesta, and at the Homestead Air Force Base. All were aimed at the Caribbean.

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