Letter Re: Cuban Spy Ring Arrests Raises Concern of Ham Radio Restrictions

This article concerns me: Cuban spies’ shortwave radios go undetected: Low-tech transmissions no big deal for U.S. intelligence. The journalist mentions: “The International Amateur Radio Union said there are more than 700,000 amateur radio operators in the United States.” I hope the governmental paranoia does not try to constrain the best method of rural emergency communications. – KAF

JWR Replies: Without mentioning anything classified, I can safely say that they are describing clandestine operatives in in the US. receiving the old-fashioned HF “Numbers” broadcasts from Cuba. These are typically code groups of five numbers, read aloud by a woman, in a monotone, such as : “Ocho, Cinco, Cinco, Uno, Nueve…” These codes are very hard to break without a huge sample for brute force computer cryptanalysis.

This modus operandi has been used for 40+ years, and is well-known to both amateur operators and the signals intelligence (SIGINT) community. To the best of my knowledge, receivers are a non-issue vis-a-vis regulating amateur radio equipment. But clandestine transmitters may be another matter. Given our fluid borders and the ubiquitous “diplomatic pouch” it is absurd to think that regulation on the possession of HF radio transmitters would have any meaningful at stopping clandestine traffic. Licensed radio amateurs are largely self-policing. They fairly quickly identify and locate unlicensed broadcasts in their their vicinity.

The Cuban DGI is an odd anachronism. While most intelligence agencies have leapfrogged their communications to exotic methods such as steganography to imbed messages in in photos sent as .gifs via the Internet and using low-power spread spectrum transmissions, the DGI’s modus operandi is at least 30 years out of date. It is somewhat analogous to Cubans still driving around cars that were manufactured in the 1950s. The last I heard, the DGI still had offices that primarily used typewriters made in the former Yugoslavia. Picturing that, you can practically smell the Cuban tobacco smoke.