By Michael E. Miller
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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 a new 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.
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.
"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.
"Some people believe The Bored Man must've been used by drug smugglers," he says, their purpose perhaps being to locate a cocaine drop or a clandestine rendezvous. "It was just so poorly done," Smolinski continues. "If it was really Cuban intelligence, you'd think they would take things a little more seriously."