by John AE5X – Dipole DXing, June 30, 2012
I heard my first “numbers station” on my grandparent’s old Zenith Transoceanic decades ago. My most recent copy of a numbers station was last week on the 41m SW band. What worked in the 70’s for communicating covertly with spies is still a valid method in the Internet Age.
From 1985 until her arrest in 2001, Ana Montes made use of the method to receive communications from Cuban Intelligence – the government for whom she spied while working as a senior analyst in matters pertaining to Cuba for the Defense Intelligence Agency in Washington, DC. On February 6 1999, Montes received a transmission on 7887 kHz from Havana for 45 minutes, keying 150 five-digit numbers into her computer. A diskette containing a decryption program then converted the seemingly random numbers into Spanish text. Upon her arrest, agents found a Sony shortwave receiver in Montes’ apartment and were able to recover 11 pages of deleted text from her Toshiba laptop – part of the text instructed Montes to use a “wipe” program to completely delete the decrypted text, which she evidently failed to do.
Although difficult to decrypt a message without the proper key, the very act of decrypting leaves a copy of the decrypted text on the computer’s hard drive and simply deleting that file doesn’t really delete it. Further details of Montes and the technical aspects of her communications with Cuban agents can be read in her arrest warrant here. Ana Montes is currently serving a 25 years sentence in a prison near Fort Worth, TX.
More recently (2009), Kendall Myers – a US State Dept officer and a great-grandson of Alexander Graham Bell – was arrested on charges of spying for Cuba. Also a professor of political science at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Myer’s syllabus contained “Lectures in praise of double agents.” Like Montes, Myers and his wife decided to forgo his great-grandfather’s invention and used instead a Sony shortwave radio for their communications with Havana, receiving messages in both voice and Morse (could he have been a ham?). By the time the traitorous couple were caught they’d been spying for Castro for nearly three decades. Myer’s arrest warrant contains verbiage to the effect that the FBI records the text of numbers stations in the event the numerical sequence matches that found on computers confiscated by suspected spies. Failing the ability to decode the message, the sequences themselves constitute evidence of “nefarious usage.”
According to Myers, money wasn’t the motive – ideology and a “love of the Cuban system” provided the impetus to sell-out his country. Sean Penn has a friend.
On July 16, 2010, Kendall Myers was sentenced to life imprisonment without possibility of parole. The couple were so unrepentant about their crimes that the judge cited their lack of remorse in hitting Kendall with a term that ensures he’ll die in prison. Incidentally, the presiding judge, US District Court Judge Reggie Walton, whose grandfather was born into slavery, told the couple he felt America provides a great opportunity to its citizens, “The United States has a lot to be proud of, which is something that you can’t seem to acknowledge.” Touché, Judge.