Smolinski's circle doesn't have the resources of the FBI. But that hasn't stopped them from sleuthing away on their own. And thanks to the declassification of many of the Wasp Network's decrypted messages, Spooks devotees were able to verify one of their amateur decryption efforts—the code announcing an imminent rebroadcast of a Havana-to-Miami transmission if it initially went out garbled. As in the Venona episode, the sloppy repetition of a one-time code unlocked the key. This sort of slapdash operation is endemic to Cuban spy radio.
After 50 years of communism, Fidel's black-ops are, like much of Cuban society, barely holding together. "They make so many errors," Smolinski says. "Forget about supercomputers—with the Cubans I have visions of punch cards." The result? Broadcasts that sometimes play at the wrong speed or backward, or cut out midway. Radio Havana Cuba—one of the island's main outlets, with which the spy station apparently shares facilities—is sometimes patched in accidentally. Listeners have lately heard a Venezuelan state-run station interrupting Cuba's spy broadcasts. Is a thick-fingered operative trying to multitask while monitoring the latest news from Caracas? Or maybe just adding a dash of mysterious color to the odd world of spy radio?
Akin to an identifying password, each numbers station has its own eerily unique signature, ostensibly to help an agent tune it in. A vintage 1971 broadcast, thought to originate from East Germany's Stasi, opens with a rousing beer-hall polka and the Communist anthem "The Internationale" before continuing with the numerology. Magnetic Fields, a station whose origins are still puzzled over, begins with Jean-Michel Jarre's synthesized New Age tune "Les Chants Magnétique" before airing strings of Arabic numerals and the English phrase "again, again." The broadcast recorded from Moscow during the aborted 1993 Communist Party coup against Boris Yeltsin sounded a more ominous note: the number 5 repeated over and over for hours. Listen to the abridged clips below, respectively.
Recorded in 1971 and believed to be an East German Stasi station.
Recorded in the mid-'90s, this Middle Eastern station's precise country of origin is unknown.
Recorded off a Moscow-based station during the 1993 hard-line Communist Party coup attempt against President Boris Yeltsin.
"I've always wondered why our side stopped doing it," says John Fulford, a 62-year-old Spooks devotee and ham radio operator in West Palm Beach, Fla. Now semi-retired, Fulford spent the early '80s as a law enforcement official on South Florida's narcotics beat, tuning in to drug smugglers on the short-wave band. "They'd use it to communicate between trawlers off-shore and the coast. They'd be very open about it: 'We have a box of bananas coming in very ripe!' " When off-duty, Fulford kept his short-wave radio on, traveling up and down the Florida coast with his late friend William Godby, a retired Naval Intelligence officer and budding Spooks-ologist. The pair used signal direction finding equipment to track homegrown numbers station transmitters to locations ranging from the Palm Beach International airport to the heart of Miami—and all of the stations were aiming their signals at the Caribbean.
These days, Fulford says, the radio mysteries are coming from Asia. Spooks members have recently logged new Korean numbers transmissions between Seoul and Pyongyang, as well as a Vietnamese broadcast aimed at California.
And the Russians? "They're still here," Fulford chuckles. In fact, despite last week's arrests, both Russian and Cuban numbers transmissions continue to be beamed daily to … someone. So are there more sleeper agents still sitting quietly in front of their radios across America? Smolinski says to bet on it: "The assumption is that if they're bothering to be on the air, there must be someone out there listening in on the other end."