Number Stations – Short Wave Radio Enigma
I immerse myself in the television show ‘Fringe’. There are so many topics which are touched on the show that peak my interest. This season, number stations were touched upon. These short wave radio broadcasts are curiously nothing more than individuals dictating numbers. Sometimes a child voice simply recites the numbers. At other times, the broadcast is introduced by song or melody. These broadcasts have been existed since World War I and due to the short wave nature cannot be located.
They are reminiscent of the film ‘Frequency.” Dennis Quaid communicates with this son in the future Jim Cavaziel through an errant radio frequency. Can such communications traverse space-time? Are any of these number stations supernatural? What are these enigmas? Are these coded messages relayed by spies? Are these cult communicae?
Numbers stations (or number stations) are shortwave radio stations of uncertain origin. They generally broadcast artificially generated voices reading streams of numbers, words, letters (sometimes using a spelling alphabet), tunes or Morse code. They are in a wide variety of languages and the voices are usually women, though sometimes men’s or children’s voices are used.
Evidence supports popular assumptions that the broadcasts are used to send messages to spies. This usage has not been publicly acknowledged by any government that may operate a numbers station, but in 2001, the United States tried the Cuban Five for spying for Cuba. The group had received and decoded messages that had been broadcast from a Cuban numbers station. Also in 2001, Ana Belen Montes, a senior US Defense Intelligence Agency analyst, was arrested and charged with espionage. The federal prosecutors stated: “Montes communicated with the Cuban Intelligence Service through encrypted messages and received her instructions through encrypted shortwave transmissions from Cuba”. In 2006, Carlos Alvarez and his wife, Elsa, were arrested and charged with espionage. The U.S. District Court Florida stated: “defendants would receive assignments via shortwave radio transmissions”. In June 2009, the United States similarly charged Walter Kendall Myers with conspiracy to spy for Cuba and receiving and decoding messages broadcast from a numbers station operated by the Cuban Intelligence Service to further that conspiracy.
It has been reported that the United States uses numbers stations to communicate encoded information to persons in other countries.
Numbers stations appear and disappear over time (although some follow regular schedules), and their overall activity has increased slightly since the early 1990s.
Suspected origins and use
According to the notes of The Conet Project, numbers stations have been reported since World War I. If accurate, this would make numbers stations among the earliest radio broadcasts.
It has long been speculated, and was argued in court in one case, that these stations operate as a simple and foolproof method for government agencies to communicate with spies working undercover. According to this theory, the messages are encrypted with a one-time pad, to avoid any risk of decryption by the enemy. As evidence, numbers stations have changed details of their broadcasts or produced special, nonscheduled broadcasts coincident with extraordinary political events, such as the August Coup of 1991 in the Soviet Union.
Number Stations are also acknowledged for espionage purposes in Robert Wallace and H. Keith Melton’s Spycraft (p. 438):The one-way voice link (OWVL) described a covert communications system that transmitted messages to an agent’s unmodified shortwave radio using the high-frequency shortwave bands between 3 and 30 MHz at a predetermined time, date, and frequency contained in their communications plan. The transmissions were contained in a series of repeated random number sequences and could only be deciphered using the agent’s one-time pad. If proper tradecraft was practiced and instructions were precisely followed, an OWVL transmission was considered unbreakable. [...] As long as the agent’s cover could justify possessing a shortwave radio and he was not under technical surveillance, high-frequency OWVL was a secure and preferred system for the CIA during the Cold War.
Others speculate that some of these stations may be related to illegal drug smuggling operations. Unlike government stations, smugglers’ stations would need to be lower powered and irregularly operated, to avoid location by triangulated direction finding, followed by government raids. However, numbers stations have transmitted with impunity for decades, so they are generally presumed to be operated or sponsored only by governments. Also, numbers station transmissions in the international shortwave bands typically require high levels of electric power that is unavailable to ranches, farms, or plantations in isolated drug-growing regions.
High frequency radio signals transmitted at relatively low power can travel around the world under ideal propagation conditions, which are affected by local RF noise levels, weather, season, and sunspots, and can then be received with a properly tuned antenna of adequate size, and a good receiver. However, spies often have to work only with available hand held receivers, sometimes under difficult local conditions, and in all seasons and sunspot cycles. Only very large transmitters, perhaps up to 500,000 watts, are guaranteed to get through to nearly any basement-dwelling spy, nearly any place on earth, nearly all of the time. Some governments may not need a numbers station with global coverage if they only send spies to nearby countries.
Although no broadcaster or government has acknowledged transmitting the numbers, a 1998 article in The Daily Telegraph quoted a spokesperson for the Department of Trade and Industry (the government department that, at that time, regulated radio broadcasting in the United Kingdom) as saying, “These [numbers stations] are what you suppose they are. People shouldn’t be mystified by them. They are not for, shall we say, public consumption.”
On some stations, tones can be heard in the background. It has been suggested that in such cases the voice may be an aid to tuning to the correct frequency, with the coded message being sent by modulating the tones, perhaps using a technology such as burst transmission.
The use of number stations as a method of espionage is discussed in Spycraft (p. 37):The only item Penkovsky used that could properly be called advanced tradecraft was his ‘agent-receive’ communications through a one-way voice-link. These encoded messages, known as OWVL, were broadcast over shortwave frequencies at predetermined times from a CIA-operated transmitter in Western Europe. Penkovsky listened to these messages on a Panasonic radio — strings of numbers read in a dispassionate voice — and then decoded them using a one-time pad.
Identifying and locating
Numbers stations are often given nicknames by enthusiasts, often reflecting some distinctive element of the station such as their interval signal. For example, the “Lincolnshire Poacher”, formerly one of the best known numbers stations (generally thought to be run by MI6, as its transmissions have been traced to RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus), played the first two bars of the folk song “The Lincolnshire Poacher” before each string of numbers. “Magnetic Fields” plays music from French electronic musician Jean Michel Jarre before and after each set of numbers. The “Atención” station begins its transmission with the Spanish word “¡Atención!”
Although it is time-consuming and may require costly global travel to pinpoint the source of a radio transmission in the shortwave band, errors at the transmission site, radio direction-finding, and a knowledge of shortwave radio propagation have provided armchair detectives clues to some number station locations.
For example, the “Atención” station was thought to be from Cuba, as a supposed error allowed Radio Habana Cuba to be carried on the frequency. Whether the frequency of Radio Habana Cuba and the frequency of the “Atención” station merely interfered with each other or whether the operator of the station was listening to the radio and it accidentally ended up on the air is unclear.
Also, several articles in the radio magazine Popular Communications published in the 1980s and early 1990s described hobbyists using portable radio direction-finding equipment to locate numbers stations in Florida and in the Warrenton, Virginia, areas of the United States. From the outside, they spotted the station’s antenna inside a military facility. The station hunter speculated that the antenna’s transmitter at the facility was connected by a telephone wire pair to a source of spoken numbers in the Washington, D.C., area. The author said the Federal Communications Commission would not comment on public inquiries about American territory numbers stations.
For more information:
Number Stations: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Numbers_station
Spy Numbers: http://www.spynumbers.com/
The Cone Project: http://www.archive.org/details/ird059