Numbers Stations, Shortwave Radio, and Their Role in the Intelligence Community

Mary Kinney


Many nights, Spooks turn on their shortwave radios and drift through the frequencies. On any given night, one can hear amateur radio stations broadcasting church sermons, utility traffic for aircrafts – with the right equipment, you can hear/contact the International Space Station. Yet one of the most eerie, mysterious uses of shortwave is that of the numbers stations: stations that feature ominous – sometimes robotic – voices saying seemingly random number patterns.


Shortwave radio boomed in the 1920s: For decades, it was the only way to receive transmissions from far way. Numbers stations, as they are called now, have been around since World War I, though many of the most famous transmissions took place during the Cold War. These mysterious stations are all, to date, unlicensed. Some feature automated voices, others have what sound like children’s voices, another with a sultry woman announcing numbers. One station – a Moscow-based broadcast during a Communist party coup – featured only the number five repeated for hours.


Numbers stations and use of shortwave have declined after the Cold War, but there are still transmissions heard every day – the shortwave decline has not been as pronounced as one would expect. Part of the reason for this is that it is a secure means of one-way communication. Since the airwaves are being released out into the ether – the intended recipient is completely untrackable. Presumably, spies would carry a one-time pad, which would have the encryption code to be used (ideally) for just one broadcast (hence one-time). This makes decryption from pedestrians and enemies nearly impossible unless that one-time pad is misused or corrupted.


Almost all of the information we have on these numbers stations is due to hobbyists listening, sourcing, and sometimes attempting to decode the stations with their own radios. The communities of hobbyists are vast – and their logging can be prolific. There is the Spooks Spy Numbers Station Mailing List, the Conet Project (which compiles recordings of shortwave), the Spy Numbers Station Database, and many others. They keep track of the frequency, the time, the numbers, and sometimes record audio each time spooks hear a Numbers broadcast. These shortwave enthusiasts sometimes spend hours trying to locate the source of these broadcasts – sometimes, to no avail.



Akin Fernandez, who started the Conet Project ,recalls his initial interest in these mystery stations. "Once you hear them, it has an effect on you," he says in an interview with BBC. "I never expected to be talking about it 17 years after hearing it for the first time – when the Conet Project first started."



Lincolnshire Poacher is one of the most talked about numbers stations, which began broadcasting in the early-mid 1970s. The numbers are book-ended with a synthesizer playing the English folk song "Lincolnshire Poacher," which lends itself to the colloquial name for the station. An electronic, English-accented woman reads numbers in groups of five, putting an accent on its final number. The secret codes are announced by this somewhat silly, innocent-sounding song, and then encrypted messages that have yet to be translated to the public.


The most common theory among pedestrian listeners is that this station was operated by the British Secret Intelligence Service. Some spooks were able to track the transmitter’s source, which may have been at a Royal Air Force base on the island of Cyprus, though no official statement has been made about the Lincolnshire Poacher station.


Lincolnshire Poacher is perhaps so famous because of its inherent eeriness and its long run: diligent listeners have logged that the station was no longer broadcasting as of July 2008, over 30 years after its understood start date. A station that followed a similar format – an Asian broadcast transmitted from Australia called “Cherry Ripe” – was considered a sort of “sister station” to Lincolnshire Poacher, and it lasted until the end of 2009.


Once Cherry Ripe ceased broadcasting, the Spooks newsletter read, “Eddy reports a silence in all the time slots and on all known Cherry Ripe frequencies since mid-December. It seems that Cherry Ripe has followed its sister, the Lincolnshire Poacher, down the drain. We'll miss her.” In spite of all of these stations’ eeriness and mystery, there is a certain adoration for the unknowable amongst these shortwave hobbyists.



Despite all the clues, no government has ever officially admitted or denied using numbers stations, nor have intelligence agencies. "Once The Conet Project was released, some spy agencies admitted that they were, 'not for public consumption'. This is as near to an admission that we have been able to obtain," Fernandez told the BBC.


A former naval intelligence officer named William Godby investigated these spy stations under the alias of Havana Moon. He was able to trace some transmissions coming out of Florida’s West Palm Beach airport and published his records of activities and findings for the Spooks communities. Godby died in 1996, but when an NPR reporter asked about his findings in 2000, the FCC’s assistant chief of the enforcement bureau, John Winston, responded, "We don't intend to discuss these stations, if any exist at all," adding, “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."


For many interested in the spy numbers, the ¡Atención! station is a hallmark. A Cuban broadcast would aim towards the Eastern United Stated with a young woman, in Spanish, announcing, “¡Atención!” followed by the numbers in groups of five. There was much fodder around this station in particular, but in 1998, the US government arrested five intelligence officers --  part of the Cuban Wasp Network – who became known as the Cuban Five. They were arrested for conspiracy to commit espionage, conspiracy to commit murder, acting as an agent of a foreign government, among others.


But what was so crucial about the Cuban Five case was that the US government’s key evidence against them was the use of numbers stations. FBI agents broke into the Cuban spies’ apartments and took their decryption program – so the one-time pad became moot for the Cuban Five. Though not acknowledging its own use of spy numbers stations, the US directly admitted to the use, proliferation, and importance of these broadcasts by including them in the ¡Atención! case. There are few to no other examples of admission on this kind of a scale from an official source.


The case, which was declassified in 2001, included some translations of the messages. The decoded notes included what one might expect: instructions like ("prioritize and continue to strengthen friendship with Joe and Dennis" and “Under no circumstances should [agents] German nor Castor fly with BTTR [Brothers to the Rescue, a Cuban activist group] or another organization on days 24, 25, 26, and 27." Yet others were surprisingly mundane like "Congratulate all the female comrades for International Day of the Woman."


Still, many Spooks pored over their ¡Atención! recordings once the case was declassified, comparing notes and logs and decryptions. It is the closest thing anyone has gotten to a definitive answer about numbers stations and their true purpose. Simon Mason, who wrote Secret Signals: The Euronumbers Mystery on the subject, told in 1999,“It’s like a mystery novel or television show, but the difference is no one will ever come out with a solution.”



Author Bio:
Mary Kinney is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

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