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

The Homestead site fell victim to 1992's Hurricane Andrew while the others went strangely silent not long afterward. According to the Federation of American Scientists, most U.S. shortwave spy signals now originate from a sprawling base outside Washington, D.C. Just don't try to get a federal bureaucrat to confirm that.

In May 2000 a National Public Radio reporter asked the Federal Communications Commission to publicly comment on William Godby's (who died in 1996) findings and the ongoing numbers-station phenomenon. "We don't intend to discuss these stations, if any exist at all," declared John Winston, the FCC's assistant chief of the enforcement bureau. "And I'm not saying there are, [even] if your scientists say there are [stations] that are transmitting in this country. We know of innumerable ones outside of this country."

Indeed the most idiosyncratic broadcasts definitely are not from the United States. Collected on the recently reissued The Conet Project are four CDs of spy radio's greatest hits, mapping out a veritable who's who of undercover agencies. Great Britain's MI6 is represented by the Lincolnshire Poacher, so nicknamed because of the English folk song that plays on a calliope before its numbers begin, ostensibly to help an agent tuning in to easily locate its signal. A vintage 1971 snippet, thought to be from East Germany's Stasi security agency, commences with a spirited beer-hall polka and then the communist anthem "The Internationale" before getting down to the numerology. Magnetic Fields, a station of unknown origin, opens with Jean-Michel Jarre's new-age synthesizer ditty "Les Chants Magnétique" before launching into a mixture of Arabic numerals and the English phrase "again, again" as the message repeats.

"Comrade, can you hear me?" Shortwave radio connects Havana to its Miami spies
"Comrade, can you hear me?" Shortwave radio connects Havana to its Miami spies

"Witness the numbers station that employs the voice of a woman intoning numbers as if she were engaging in intercourse," writes The Conet Project's compiler Akin Fernandez in the collection's liner notes. "Who would dare use such a voice? Have the operators in the technical departments that run these stations lost their minds? And of course they must have had permission to use such voices, so does this insanity go straight up to the top levels?"

Echoing that ominous note is the broadcast recorded from Moscow during the aborted hard-line Communist Party coup against Boris Yeltsin: It's simply the number five repeated over and over again for hours.

Speaking to England's the Guardian about The Conet Project, former KGB officer Oleg Gordievsky (now working for British intelligence) confirmed that the disc's Soviet spy sound bites were authentic. But even Gordievsky had a hard time figuring out what was going on with Czechoslovakia's OLX. After decades of regular service, it vanished from the airwaves shortly after that nation's 1989 "velvet revolution," only to mysteriously reappear in late 1996. Was it a postcommunist case of "meet the new boss, same as the old boss?" Just who were Vaclav Havel's freedom-loving buddies spying on? The Germans, suggests Gordievsky. The Czechs distrust Germany and want "to know what they are up to. They may be trying to create a new network." (OLX went silent again in 1998.)

Despite the colorful competition, Chris Smolinski holds a special place in his heart for the Cuban numbers stations. "They're the worst-run of all," he laughs. "They have lots of transmitter problems that cause the signals to drift. Sometimes there are these horrible hums that drown out the numbers. Sometimes they even switch on the wrong audio -- Radio Havana Cuba will go on the air instead of a numbers station. Sometimes they'll be patched in on top of one another until somebody in the studio realizes their mistake." He sighs. "I feel really bad for the Cuban agents. Here they are trying to copy down numbers, and the audio is so distorted you can't make it out. It must be so frustrating for them. I guess 40 years of communism will do that. Obviously they're running on a shoestring. I'm sure they're working with hand-me-down stuff from the Soviets."

None of that begins to explain why one of the ¡Atención! broadcasts Smolinski taped opened with a rooster crowing. "Maybe they were getting ready to make dinner, and somebody left the microphone on," he cracks.

Then there's The Babbler, featuring the familiar muchacha strains of Cuban spy radio. But instead of calmly reciting her numbers as in the ¡Atención! broadcast, The Babbler sings them with dizzying speed. Is her inflection itself carrying a hidden message? Is she perhaps trying to cheer up some lonely Cuban spy sitting in his dingy Hialeah apartment, pining for the homeland? Or is it just a case of too many cortaditos before starting work?

And what about The Bored Man? "If you listened to him, it sounded like he really didn't care what he was doing," says Smolinski of how this announcer earned his sobriquet. Until August 1998 "he was on every Sunday morning at 9:00, although sometimes he'd start late. He'd make mistakes, back up, and start over. There are even cases where you can hear people laughing in the background. He just sounded incredibly bored with his job. It was all very odd." So odd, in fact, that several Spooks members are convinced that despite its use of a traditionally Cuban frequency and format, it was anything but.

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