I thought tonight we’d talk about something kind of fun and off our timeline. Although the Cold War has been history for almost two decades, a part of it still rages on the airwaves around us – the Cuban intelligence service sending coded messages to their operatives within the United States via shortwave radio. This cryptic broadcast of out-of-this world tones and a robotic female voice reading off four number combinations harkens back to the days of Cold War espionage.
Shortwave radio has taken a beating since, well, the end of the Cold War, but it played an important role in disseminating propaganda (or “information”, depending on your perspective) to people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to get it. The beauty of radio is that there’s no way of detecting that radio waves had been received – as long as you maybe cleared your dial when you were done listening and didn’t get caught in the act of listening, there was no trail left.
Although shortwave has largely been beat out by the rise of the internet and access to the web, radio has an advantage over the internet in that there’s no way to trace if radio waves had been received. While it may seem counterintuitive for Cuba to send their secret messages out on such a broad platform, the only thing the United States can really tell from the fact that they send the messages is that they (probably) have operatives within the United States and physically where the message is transmitted (which tells us nothing other than it’s from Cuba). That’s it. We can’t tell *who* it’s being sent to, because it’s sent to damn near everyone in the US. We also can’t tell who is listening for the previously mentioned reasons.
If our intelligence agencies intercepted a message through a different medium, they would probably be able to determine much more information about who the message was intended for. So shortwave is kind of a cool, low-tech workaround in today’s high-tech world.
Cuba isn’t the only country that uses spy numbers stations. There are others that still do and ones that historically did. There’s a famous one by the MI5 that broadcasts out of Cyprus.
As far as shortwave radio goes, we’re going to look at it in a little more depth in this project because I think it is an interesting chapter in Cold War history.