FOREIGN EMBASSIES aren’t just places you visit to get tourist visas or where politicians negotiate trade deals – they are also rats’ nests of spies and pump-out encrypted messages over the public airwaves to this very day. Meet the numbers stations.
The short wave radio bands, which run from 3,000–30,000 kilohertz, have long been ignored by commercial broadcasters because of their low fidelity and the complexity of tuning-in. Today there is only a handful of commercial stations on short wave and they make their money not by selling adverts, but selling time to independent – and often crazed – programme makers.
Governments, though, have always taken a keen interest in short wave. One of the principal uses of short wave was to blast news and information to colonies – the BBC World Service was launched in 1932 as the BBC Empire Service, rather giving the game away. The end of empire didn’t put an end to government-sponsored radio broadcasts though, far from it. As the imperial regimes fell politics heated-up during the Cold War and the BBC World Service was joined by the likes of Radio Moscow, the Voice of America, Radio Canada International, Radio Berlin International and dozens of ther stations whose aim was inform the world that their way – whatever it happened to be – was the One True Way.
Public broadcasts were far from the only state-sponsored broadcasts, though. The very qualities that made the short wave bands attractive to propaganda stations – the ability to blanket vast areas of the planet with relatively low power signals and the fact that they could be picked-up using ordinary radios – made them even more enticing to intelligence agencies. Tune in to the right frequency at the right time, then and now, and you will hear (though not for your listening pleasure) the strangest radio broadcasts you are ever likely to encounter: tinny strains of repetitive folk tunes followed by monotone voices, often synthesized, reading out five-digit strings of seemingly random numbers.
These are the numbers stations.
Number stations have become a subject of intense fascination and debate among those who know about them.
Ed Cummings, a radio enthusiast and noted personality on the computer hacking scene, first remembers hearing numbers stations in 1969: “It was on my stepfather’s cheap Juliette multiband receiver. I was dumbfounded by the monotonous mystery of it, and still am,” he said.
“It wasn’t until over a decade later that I learned these stations are operated by clandestine services of various nations’ intelligence agencies to securely convey instructions to their covert field operatives placed around the world.”
Even then it was an official secret: radio enthusiasts had worked out what they were but no-one was admitting responsibility for the broadcasts.
In fact, no official admission has ever been made. However, at least three incidents mean that we can be sure they are the work of military intelligence.
In 1997 a spokesperson for Britain’s Department of Trade and Industry said there was “no mystery” and that the stations were not “intended for public consumption.” Of course, this in itself could be read as a denial: no mystery because they ‘don’t exist’.
A year later the so-called ‘Miami Five’, a Cuban spy network, were arrested in the United States. The evidence used to convict the group included the fact that the FBI was able to intercept their instructions sent via the ‘Atención’ numbers station, having stolen the decryption software from a computer in 1995.
In fact, Atención, so named because it starts broadcasts with female voice saying the Spanish imperative for attention, may be the only station ever successfully decrypted without theft of codebooks. “Someone on the Spooks list [of numbers station enthusiasts] had already cracked the code for a repeated transmission [from Havana to Miami] if it was received garbled,” Chris Smolinski told reporter Brett Sokol of the Miami New Times. (1)
The reason the messages can’t normally hope to be decrypted is because they are encrypted using a method called ‘one-time pads’ that provide virtually infinite strings of code. Codes made with one-time pads are, to all intents and purposes, uncrackable even by those who have access to military supercomputers. The only way a one-time pad can be decrypted is when the operative sending the message makes a mistake or the operative receiving the message lets the enemy get hold of the decryption tables (now usually computer software).
The third ‘give away’ is the memoir of Thomas Wagner, whose family in East Germany received messages from the West that allowed them to escape – and almost failed because the East German authorities were onto them and sending their own false messages. (2)
As far as official admissions go, Ed Cummings has got further than anyone: “Decades after [finding out what they were] I was able to get two former CIA agents (one a former high-ranking employee, the other a former contractor) to confirm that agency had used this method. As far as I know these are the only public admissions of this.”
A potential fourth clue is a noted technical problem. A known Spanish-language numbers station in the Caribbean once accidentally broadcast audio from Radio Havana Cuba. This is the world of military intelligence, though, so conspiracy theories abound and it has been suggested the signal was broadcast by the United States as disinformation. It seems unlikely, but then so do numbers stations themselves.
Who would want to listen to bizarre strings of numbers repeated over and over again? More people than watch many digital television channels, as it happens.
The British indepndent record company Irdial Discs released Akin Fernandez’s four-CD set of dozens of numbers stations, entitled the Conet Project. (3)
As Irdal’s liner notes say, numbers stations are a mystery worth thinking about.
“Why is it that in over 30 years, the phenomenon of numbers stations has gone almost totally unreported? What are the agencies behind the numbers stations, and why are the eastern European stations still on the air? Why does the Czech republic operate a numbers station 24 hours a day? How is it that numbers stations are allowed to interfere with essential radio services like air traffic control and shipping without having to answer to anybody? Why does the ‘Swedish Rhapsody’ numbers station use a small girls voice?”
British radio enthusiast Simon Mason provided many of the original recordings used by the Conet project. Like most numbers station chasers Mason first heard the mysterious broadcasts in his youth.
“It was the end of the 60s and I was listening to pirate radio stations like Radio Caroline, Radio Veronica and Radio North Sea – the BBC didn’t play pop music and even when it started Radio One it was limited. Then I started to listen to American Forces’ Radio [for US soldiers stationed in Europe,” he told forth.
From here it was only a short hop up the dial to the weirdness of short wave.
“My father bought a radiogram set and it had short wave. I listened to the BBC World Service, Radio Moscow as it was then and the Voice of America. I soon found I could also hear [ham] radio amateurs, ships, planes and all kinds of things. Every so often I would come across a numbers station.
“They piqued my interest,” he said.
Mason wasn’t alone. Other noted numbers station listeners – other than their intended audience, of course – include dozens of musicians, many of whom have incorporated the strange sounds into their performances. From ur-alternative rockers Pere Ubu to electronic minimalists Boards of Canada, musicians have a particular fascination for these oddball noises.
One group, Wilco, ended-up in court as a result of number stations – but not because they broke a coded message, simply because they broke copyright law. Fernandez sued Wilco for using clips of the Conet Project resulting in a strange battle over who owned the rights to these passages of information that no-one would claim responsibility for. The case was eventually settled out of court.
Mason, who continues to monitor and track numbers stations, says the end of the Cold War has resulted in a decrease in broadcasts.
“They have dwindled,” he said. “These days you really have to know where and when to look for them.”
This has not put off the enthusiasts. In fact, the Enigma 2000 listeners’ group in Britain produces a schedule of known and predicted broadcasts, a kind of Radio Times for amateur spies.
Still, they haven’t gone away – and nor has their unintended audience.
Even in this silicon age of mobile phones, the internet and satellite communications, radio remains the most accessible and least suspicious method of international communication available. After all, a raid that uncovered all kinds of sophisticated communications equipment might raise the eyebrow of even the most plodding policeman. Few people have ever been arrested simply for owning an ordinary radio.
Unsurprisingly, the numbers stations have followed the geopolitical hotspots eastward in recent decades, from Europe to the Middle East. The Iraq war brought a number of stations out of the woodwork including E03/A ‘The Lincolnshire Poacher’ broadcast from Britain, most likely by the Secret Intelligence Service MI6 and E25 broadcast from Egypt – and, according to one listener who has performed a spectrographic analysis on the signal, shares characteristics with Radio Havana Cuba, though it could be coincidental or a harmonic artefact possible on short wave.
The listeners have no hope of decrypting the signals but that doesn’t stop them – and they have discovered all manner of other information about the signals, including where they come from and, in some cases, who is operating them.
One station deserves a special mention: UVB-76 ‘the Buzzer’. Located at 4,625 kilohertz, the Buzzer, well, buzzes 25 times a second, 24 hours a day – and has done since 1982, emanating from a transmission site 30 kilometers northwest of Moscow.
During a technical malfunction the following conversation in Russian was heard:
“I’m 143rd. I don’t receive the oscillator.”
“Those are the orders from operations.”
No-one knows what the Buzzer is for, but the smart money is on it being a so-called ‘dead hand’ control, a system known of in the West since the Soviet-era, that will launch a nuclear strike in the event of the country’s leadership being killed.
“The attraction is precisely that they are mysterious,” said Mason. “Imagine a large UFO appeared above Dublin every day but no-one would talk about it. The numbers stations are like that.”
PREVIOUSLY ON FORTH:
Clandestine but not confidential: the history of clandestine radio,