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Number Nine, Number Nine . . .

By Joab Jackson | Posted 11/15/2000

They sound like transmissions from another world. And they might as well be, for all that is known about them. Barely cutting through the din of radio white noise, a woman's voice hypnotically chants the numbers 1-6-8 between larger sets of numbers. She recites them slowly, clearly, with eerie detachment. In another transmission, probably from Sweden, a female voice intersperses her series of mysterious strings of digits with interludes from what sounds like a music box. Elsewhere, a Cuban man sings his series of seemingly random digits.

Shortwave bands, those slices of the electromagnetic spectrum particularly suitable for long-distance radio transmissions, are full of people reciting numbers. Just numbers, only numbers. No one knows what they are for, at least not anyone who is willing to talk about them. But those who think about such things generally assume they're encrypted messages of some sort, dispatches to far-flung clandestine operators broadcast by their governments of employ.

Westminster electrical engineer Chris Smolinski is rapidly turning into one the world's foremost experts on these "spy numbers," as they are known. This shortwave enthusiast has been interviewed by USA Today and His Web site Spy Centre ) features databases of profiles and samples of the broadcasts, links to other sites, as well as a form to order a CD-ROM, The Numbers Racket, that includes 10 hours of the digital recordings. Of the origin and import of these numbers, Smolinski tells me during a recent interview, "It's a bit of a mystery. We've learned a lot the last 10 years or so. It's a cat-and-mouse game of trying to guess habits of them."

Smolinski has been a shortwave-radio operator for about 22 of his 34 years. Not long after getting into the hobby, he ran across one of these transmissions. Surfing through the usual shortwave stuff--the BBC World Service, Voice of America, Radio Moscow, ship-to-shore communications, broadcasts by fellow enthusiasts--he ran across a woman reciting groups of numbers. "The first thing I wondered was, Why is there a voice of a lady reading off numbers?" he recalls. "That was kind of odd."

The USA Today article in which Smolinski is interviewed ("Spies hide in strange shortwave signals,") dates the phenomenon back to the early 1960s. The story also quotes Hugh Stegman, an editor of the shortwave-radio publication Monitoring Times, who speculates that the numbers stations first popped up during the Cuban missile crisis. Shortwave radio, he notes, remains the best way to communicate secret information over great distances, as the devices are portable and can be used in remote sections of the globe.

These days, one can hear numbers broadcasts day or night. "Most times you can pick up a station," Smolinski says. "Most numbers stations keep very precise schedules. Certain stations will be on at Wednesdays at 7 P.M., and every few months they'll change the frequency or change the time or something like that. But they keep very fixed schedules. I guess that is to make [sure] whoever it is hearing it know[s] when to tune in."

This is considered a strength, strategy-wise. Sudden, unscheduled bursts of transmission would be a dead giveaway to any snooping listener that something is up back in the country of origin. "Generally, the rule of thumb is that you don't want to increase your activity because people don't know what you're sending," Smolinski says. "They see that you are sending more often, and then they know something is up. So the thought is that most numbers stations transmit on the fixed pattern, and if they don't have anything to say they send a dummy message. And that way [anyone trying to intercept the message] can't tell if there is anything different."

One notable exception is stations that seem to be broadcasting from Israel, he says. "There seems to definitely be a pattern of stations from Israel. They tend to become more active when there are events happening over there."

Spy-number transmissions vary in length, from five minutes to nearly an hour. Often the same sequence of numbers is repeated two or three times in a row. "The Cuban ones run 50 minutes, and they send three transmissions during that time," Smolinski says. The different broadcasts are collected and numbered by the European Numbers Information Gathering and Monitoring Association (ENIGMA), but they are quickly tagged by spy-number enthusiasts with nicknames associated with some quirk of the performance--"Russian Lady," "The Bored Man," "Chinese Numbers."

Smolinski's site offers some audio clips, and more can be found at Sounds Off the Wireless. Taken together, these recordings possess almost a musical quality. It's collage art made from sound, what with the wide variety of white-noise textures, the almost ghostly delivery of the numbers, the fragments of music and other broadcasts, the minimal melodic patterns of the recitals, and the allure of their unknown origin.

Smolinski also hosts a mailing list devoted to the subject; he has more than 300 readers--including, he suspects, some who work in the intelligence community. "I'm sure they're not learning anything new," he says, laughing. "They're finding out what we know, but they're not telling us what they know."

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