By Thomas Scott
After the First World War, a strange phenomenon began to appear on the international airwaves. Covert radio stations that transmit seemingly random sequences of integers known as numbers stations, started being received by short wave listeners worldwide.
The short wave frequency range in question ranges from 2.3 megahertz to 26.1 megahertz. In contrast, an AM radio in the average car receives signals on the extended medium wave band from 530 kilohertz (.53 MHz) to 1.71 megahertz. For the most part the origin and purpose of these stations remains unknown. However, some speculate that governments operate these stations.
Some famous stations include The Lincolnshire Poacher which was traced by radio amateurs to the island of Cyprus, where the United Kingdom operates an Air Force base.
According to radio amateurs and enthusiasts who listen to these broadcasts, The Lincolnshire Poacher has been off the air since late 2008.
The numbers station monitoring group European Numbers Information Gathering and Mon- itoring Association (ENIGMA) assigns the letter E for an English Station, G for German, S for a Slavic language and V for any other spoken language. Yet some stations are no longer shrouded in mystery.
Another station, designated V2, was implicated in an espionage trial involving Cuban nationals who infiltrated expatriate groups such as Brothers to the Rescue as well as a Naval Air Station in Key West. The Cuban spy cell, which was known as the Wasp Network, passed along documents to the Cuban government which enabled the Feb. 24, 1996 shoot-down of a Brothers to the Rescue flight over international waters. On the night of Feb. 24, 1996, Brothers to the Rescue pilots flew to Cuba and dropped leaflets. However, as they began their return to the United States they were intercepted and shot down by two Cuban MiG aircraft.
Juan Pablo Roque returned to Cuba on Feb. 23, 1996 and disavowed Brothers to the Rescue. It was later revealed that Roque was not only part of the Wasp Network but was also on the FBI’s payroll.
In September 1998, the FBI closed in on the main players in the Wasp Network, or the Cuban Five as they came to be known, and later asserted that they had received their instructions from the Castro regime via a numbers station.
According to an article by Brett Sokol in the Miami New Times, the bureau “surreptitiously broke into … one of the spies’ apartments” in 1995 and copied the computer program that was necessary to “to subsequently decipher the shortwave broadcasts.” The FBI unveiled the decoded messages in court after bringing the case to trial in 2001.
Without the necessary software or decoding materials known as one time pads, numbers station broadcasts can be impossible to crack. V2 can still be heard regularly over the short wave.
It was also revealed in 2005 that a station previously dubbed E22 was in fact used for tests of India’s international broadcasting service called All India Radio, or AIR. In an e-mail to short wave enthusiast known as Mikesndbs, an official with AIR’s Spectrum Management & Synergy Division noted that “there are many AIR long range transmitters,” and that “when [engineers] carry out maintenance they speak … codes” that correlate to “particular settings, or … target areas or … transmitter numbers.”