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TUCoPS :: Radio :: covspect.txt

The Covert Spectrum

The covert spectrum. (pirate and secret broadcasting)

by Jim Hougan
"A bit of transmission has been coming through, But so disjointed that I
cannot be sure Whether I am to work more closely now with Artifact, or
terminate him . . . "

from Reflections on Espionage by John Hollander (Atheneum, 1976)

IN THE LATE AUTUMN OF 1987, a pirate broadcaster seized control of the
transmission signals of two television stations in Illinois. For nearly two
minutes, startled Chicagoans listened to a bizarre diatribe about a local
sportscaster, while watching a naked man being spanked with a flyswatter.

Halfway around the world in Teheran, a television audience of shocked
fundamentalists stared at their sets in horror, as agents 4of the
CIA-sponsored "Flag of Freedom" organization took control of the Iranian
government's own television signal to attack the Ayatollah - and promote the
cause of the exiled Baby Shah.

What does it mean when the CIA and a practical joker mount parallel and
highly technical covert media operations on separate continents - the one to
overthrow a government, and the other to mock a sportscaster?

It's getting a little ... Videodrome out there.

Since the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency in 1947, covert
activity has metastasized within the federal government. Virtually every
U.S. agency today is host to one or more secret components whose operations
are as invisible as Washington can make them. From the unheard-of Office of
Foreign Availability at the Commerce Department to the determinedly
anonymous Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress, the American
government has spawned a sub rosa bureaucracy whose day-to-day business
resembles nothing so much as a conspiracy in (what we're told is) the public

To say that Big Brother is watching is a cliche, of course, but it is also
true. And yet, as profound as this development is, its importance is likely
to be dwarfed by an even more radical development. Technological change has
commercialized the covert intelligence function to the point where its tools
and practices are available to anyone who can pay for them - to anyone, in
other words, from the neighborhood grocer to the ecological activist, inside
trader, serial killer, and political nut. And while the publicly available
technology is often somewhat less than state-of-the-art, there are
compensations: e.g., the private sector is free from congressional

I'm sitting in a darkened room in front of a shortwave console, headphones
clapped to my ears, listening to a woman's voice on the Upper Sideband:

"Sierra foxtrot, sierra foxtrot. Six, one, seven. Three, five, one. Five,
four. Dis-information . . . "

I know it won't improve the sound, but I can't help leaning forward
instinctively, lowering my head into the pale yellow light from the radio
dial, straining to hear. Did she say "dis-information" . . . or "this

"Three, six, four, nine, three." A pause.

"Seven, nine, one, one, two." Another pause.

The voice is sensuous but mechanical, matter-of-fact and utterly mysterious.
The message she's sending is as impenetrable as its authors can make it: 54
groups with five numbers in each, directed, we may suppose, to Agent 617
from Sender 351. Or vice versa. It's impossible to tell.

The transmissions are received by agents in the field using ordinary
portable shortwave radios. The messages are decoded with the help of
"one-time pads" of randomly generated numbers arranged in groups. The code
is probably unbreakable, unless, as sometimes happens, the pad itself is
captured (quite possibly over the dead body of the agent in question). It's
a system in which each group of numbers represents a word or phrase. Thus, 
54209 67319 38785" might mean "information required about - security
arrangements - at the airport." Then again, it might not.

The woman's voice beats at my ears, hypnotic in its nonsensicality. She and
her sisters land an occasional brother) have been reading numbers into the
void on hundreds of shifting channels for decades. They broadcast from
almost every part of the world in languages as diverse as Spanish, Russian,
German, Chinese, English, Bulgarian, and the old standby Morse Code. Their
accents are American or Mandarin, Honduran or Czech. Some of the broadcasts
begin with signature-tunes, musical passages that, in effect, cue the agent
to get out his pad and pencil. (The Chinese apparently start their
broadcasts with four notes played on a marimba, reminding some listeners of
Macy's, while the Romanians alert their agents with a passage from "The
Meadowlark," played on a piccolo.)

Leaning forward, I tilt my head to the side and, listening intently, hear a
barely audible click between each of the numbers. According to covert radio
expert Harry Helms*, the woman is a bionic creation - the spooks'
counterpart to Directory Assistance. A human may have voiced the numbers
originally, but nowadays the transmissions come from a device that strings
together brief, prerecorded audio tape-loops in the needed sequence. The
station from which she's broadcasting is probably a robot as well: an
unstaffed, remotely controlled, windowless bunker surrounded by cyclone
fencing, video cameras, barbed wire and hidden alarms.

* Helms edits Umbra et Lux, a monthly newsletter dedicated to unlocking the
mysteries of covert radio transmissions.

A mathematics professor tracked a string of numbers transmissions to a
facility just like that several years ago. Set amid the farms and forests
near Remington, Virginia, about an hour's drive from CIA headquarters in
Langley, the installation bristles with dipole and log-periodic antennas. A
sign at the entrance reads:



                     U.S. ARMY

                     STATION C

Transmissions from the Remington stations  there are several in the area)
have been recorded in English, Spanish and Morse Code. While the Pentagon
and other government agencies refuse to comment on the facilities, other
than to say that their missions are classified, it is thought that at least
some of the broadcasts are for training purposes. After all, junior CIA
officers need real-time practice in the field.

Where, in fact, it can get very rough.

Indeed, if reports from Nicaragua are believed, the Warrenton "numbers
stations" were used to coordinate plots against Sandinista leaders.
According to one report, the CIA recruited a Nicaraguan-born femme fatale to
assassinate that country's foreign minister in 1982.

The woman was allegedly given a Sony shortwave radio capable of picking up
the coded broadcasts, a one-time pad concealed in a wooden figurine, secret
inks, and an edible notebook. Her instructions were said to be transmitted
in four-digit groups at 11 Pm. on 9074 kHz.

Interestingly, there has been no let-up in numbers broadcasting from the
Warrenton site, even as a proUS regime takes charge in Nicaragua and,
elsewhere around the world, the Cold War thaws.

" . . . Uno seis ocho dos. Ocho seis zero uno. Nueve tres ocho quatro.
Final. Final!"

The Crystal Ship QSL


That there is mystery in poetry and poetry in mystery is clear to anyone
who's thought about either. John Hollander made the point some years ago
with Reflections on Espionage. A book-length poem, it was structured as a
series of apparently decrypted radio messages from an agent known only as 
Cupcake," to his controller, "Image." The verse is knowing - about
espionage, about radio, about life.

  2/1 (TO IMAGE)

   Image, there were funny pings in my headset

   During the transmission tonight, echoing

   Neither in my head nor in the earphone, but

   Somewhere within, it seemed to me, their own sound.

   Transmitting the truth is always a problem.

   Facts we can encipher, and they then become

   Sendable messages: why do not the truths

   Climb obediently into disguises,

   Learn their lines well and be off? Instead they hang

   About and plague us with unvoiced reproaches.

   Perhaps these headset pings - I dreamt last night I

   Fled someone, and ran into a cave  "This is

   A place of broken artifacts" rang in my

   Ear as if I had just been so instructed);

   Then I was sitting down and heavy pebbles

   Were dropping around me at slow intervals

   ("Broken echoes" my head said). Then I awoke,

   Forgetting the dream, the cave, the broken stones.

   Tonight the dying sounds inside my headset

   Recalled them all. Echoes of truth? Collect them,

   Image, fragmentary as they are, like shards

   Of mirror, each of them reflecting the whole.

The point about numbers broadcasts is not just that they're an intriguing
mystery. It is, rather, that despite being sent out in dozens of languages
over hundreds of frequencies for more than forty years, the existence of
these stations is entirely unknown to all but a relative few. The average
person (if that's not a contradiction in terms) has little idea of the
electromagnetic plenum that surrounds him. To stumble upon a "numbers"
broadcast is to realize that each of us is living, obliviously but in fact,
in an atmosphere of unapprehended secrets.

Not all of these secret broadcasts are in code. "Covert communications" is a
catch-all covering an array of transmissions that are, in one way or
another, supposed to be secret. This can mean coded texts from known
transmitters, or clear voices from hidden sources. Whichever, one can, with
readily available equipment, listen to the transmissions of surveillance 
bugs," drug smugglers plying the US's boundaries, as well as the Customs
agents chasing after them. You can even hear Air Force One.

One type of covert communication that definitely wants to be heard is
clandestine broadcasting. While such stations go to considerable lengths to
keep their locations secret, their messages are meant for all within
earshot. Radio Caiman, for example, has been broadcasting a mix of rock and
Latin music, interspersed with anti-Castro talk segments, for nearly five
years, from a transmitter believed to be just outside Guatemala City. The
station's powerful signal, longevity and slick progamming set it apart from
other Spanish-language clandestines. In the opinion of many shortwave
listeners, Radio Caiman is probably funded and programmed by the CIA, while
its less sophisticated counterparts are operated by independent groups.

The number of clandestine broadcasters operating in the world at any given
time is anyone's guess - but certainly there are dozens. They have names
like "Flag of Freedom Radio"  targeted at Iran), "Radio Truth" (which tells
South Africa's side of the apartheid story), and the "Voice of the Broad
Masses of Eritrea" (which supports Eritrean independence from Ethiopia).

What many of these stations have in common is exile. in almost every case,
their transmitters are located outside the countries to which they're
broadcasting. An exception is "Radio Patria Libre," which urges the
overthrow of the Colombian government from a location in the mountains
northwest of Medellin.

Then there are "pirate" broadcasters whose content is apolitical (in a
conventional sense), but whose identities and locations are as carefully
guarded as the clandestine stations'. The Crystal Ship. The Voice of
Laryngitis. Secret Mountain Laboratory. These are playful and romantic
names, conjured up by  kids playing radio." They beam crude casseroles of
rock and satire into the void, using homemade or modified ham transmitters.

There are some serious exceptions. Such as the "Voice of Tomorrow." An
openly neo-Nazi enterprise, the Voice of Tomorrow undoubtedly thinks of
itself as a political clandestine. It transmits calmly voiced racial
propaganda and rightwing populist analysis aimed at "raising the
consciousness" of White America. The Voice is heard, intermittently, on a
variety of shortwave frequencies. In contrast to "hobby pirate" stations,
its announcers and production style are strikingly professional. VOT's
transmitter is thought to be located in Virginia, within a few hours' drive
of FCC headquarters.

It is the Federal Communications Commission's responsibility to put pirates
stations off the air, and likewise, we assume, domestic clandestines not
supported by the US Government. The FCC claims that the Voice of Tomorrow
moves their transmitter each time they go on the air, and their broadcasts
are only an hour long, making them hard to catch. A spokesman adds,  Judging
by the complaints we get, the broadcasts are infrequent." Perhaps. But they
also had a hard time busting "La Voz de Alpha-66," a virulently anti-Castro
station which broadcast from Miami on the same frequency (6666.6 kHz) three
nights a week for most of the Reagan years. Their transmitter was finally
confiscated around the time the Voice of America's Radio Marti came on the

The FCC's agents had no difficulty finding Walter Dunn, however.

Dunn is a handsome black Californian with graying hair, a mellifluous voice,
and a rap that's funny, smooth and pointed, all at once. Transmitting from
Fresno, Dunn's "Zoom Black Magic Radio" has been the target of several FCC
raids. According to "the Black Rose," as he's also known, six FCC agents
showed up at his house some time ago, scaring the wits out of his bedridden
mother. Accompanied by police cars and a two-ton flatbed truck, brought to
the scene to haul off broadcasting equipment that could actually have been
carried away in a bucket, the FCC was determined to put Dunn out of
business. And it succeeded.

But only for a few days.

Dunn is a man with a mission, and a belief in his right to broadcast. He's
often been heard on 100.5 FM at night, transmitting from a beat-to-death
14-foot Aljo trailer in the  Zoom Compound." The Compound is, in fact,
Dunn's backyard and it's easy enough to find: the station's antenna, a
76-foot, leaning tower of Zoom, rises beside Dunn's vegetable garden to
provide about 125 watts of "effective power."

Operating on listeners' donations that enable him to rake in as much as $60
per month, Dunn uses Radio Shack equipment to put out a signal for 24 miles
in every direction. He's assisted by a phalanx of volunteer DJs and
technicians with handles like "Iceberg," "Mellow Yellow," and "Daddy Rich."
Together, they play everything from jazz to "thump thump," interspersed by
an outrageous mix of "community messages" and Zodiacal hype. The Saturday
night that I spent in the trailer, reclining on a couch with my head against
the ceiling and my chin on my chest, "Mr. Ebony" (James Gearon) was at the
microphone, putting out a smooth stream of good-natured blarney.

"You want to take a ri-iiide in time? Okay - kick back! Two six eight, four
three oh eight is the magic number. `Shark Attack' comin' atcha!" Gearon
reaches for a Wes Montgomery album, plucking it expertly from one of the
dairy crates that holds the station's records, and begins to quote from a
poem that he's written: Love is Man eating the Wisdom Dinner From God
through his Woman's Hand. He puts the album on a battered Technics
turntable, flips a switch and sits back with a satisfied smile. "Welcome to
Slave Quarters Radio," he says, as he turns up the monitor - a cheap
portable with a tinny sound.

Sitting in the trailer is a little like being in a submarine made of scraps.
J.C. Penney bags cover the windows, making it impossible to see outside. The
main source of light inside comes from a yellow heat-lamp. The lamp drives
the cold from the air, which is good because the trailer is otherwise
unheated. But it fills the space with a thick, almost liquid, light.

I ask Gearon where he's from.  "Chicago," he says. "I had a business there:
the Master-Blaster Shoeshine Parlor, Valet Service and Dye-Works. On 79th
Street. I did okay, ya know, but I got burnt-out. See, all them brothers in
the fast lane ... would come in and want their shoes dyed the same color as
their pink pants. Which was okay, but ... after awhile, I burnt out on
shoes. So here I am." Indeed.

The next morning I ask the Black Rose what Zoom Black Magic is all about.
"Well, first of all," he said, "we're not filthy lowdown dogs and pedophiles
like those other stations. We're one of the thousand points-a-light that
Marsa Bush spoke of. What you see here," he continues, "is a Rasta versus
Goliath story. I mean, it's pitiful. There's a black community of 100,000
people in the San Joaquin Valley, and there isn't a radio station around
with a black personality on the air. We're filling a need," he says, and
then hastens to point out that Zoom Black Magic isn't just a black station:

"It's a people-station. We cover the spectrum, ethnically. I mean this is
your voice, your drum - whatever your color is."

Surveying his radio demesne with the calm gaze of a Texas rancher scanning
the horizon for his property line, the Rose is suddenly at a loss for words.
"This ... this ... this  " Finally, he hits upon the right word, and his
expression changes to a scowl. "This is BULLSHIT," he shouts. "In the 20th
Century, this is absolute bullshit! But you know what? Some ... some -" Dunn
casts around for the right word and, finding it, smiles: "Some FRUITCAKE -
someone like Morton Downey - could take this thing and RUN with it!" Dunn is
a gadfly, not a revolutionary. His attacks on the black "booooj-wah-zee" may
be culturally subversive in the San Joaquin Valley, but he's not out to
overthrow the government. On the other hand, he is determined to expand his
broadcasts to the television spectrum. Indeed, Dunn worked for years as a
technician at a television station, and he's already experimented with a
pirate signal out in the Fresno area. Zoom Black Video can't be far behind.

For all of the Rose's playfulness and hyperbole, the stakes are enormous. To
live in ignorance of the hidden spectrum of airwaves, oblivious not just to
its mysteries but to the very fact and fullness of its existence, is to cede
control of the medium to people and institutions that do not necessarily
have our best interests at heart. Consider, if you will, a recent
announcement from the Defense Department under its "Small Business
Innovation Research Program." *

It is a solicitation for bids from researchers to explore the use of radio
to deliver computer viruses into targeted communications systems and

"The purpose of this research," the solicitation explains, "shall be to
investigate potential use of computer viruses to achieve  ... (information)
disruption, denial, and deception .... Research in effective methods or
strategies to remotely introduce such viruses shall also be conducted.
Efforts in this area should be focused on RF [radio frequency] atmospheric
signal transmission such as performed in tactical military data

According to the Washington Post, the would-be sponsor of this project is -
the US Army's "secretive Center for Signals Warfare in Warrenton, Virginia."

A computer virus is just a stanza of code let loose, numerical programming
instructions that propagate. Nothing would be more natural for the boys at
Warrenton than to want to use clandestine radio to broadcast such viruses.

"Sierra foxtrot! Sierra Foxtrot! Six, one, seven. Nine, five."

Artifact can kiss his ass goodbye. n

* " Solicitation 90.2 FY-1990 Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR)
Program," p. 45:  A90-217 TITLE: Computer Virus Electronic Counter Measure


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