It should not be surprising that CIA Headquarters is home to some of the world’s biggest secrets. What may raise your eyebrows is the fact that one of its biggest secrets is on public display. At an agency that employs the best codebreakers in the world is an encrypted message written by an amateur cryptologist that has stumped the cryptogram that has flummoxed the best and brightest for thirty years.
Artist Jim Sanborn was commissioned to create a sculpture for the grounds of the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) headquarters in Langley, Virginia. He decided that a fitting theme for such a would be to create a “riddle within a riddle.” Working with the retiring chairman of the CIA Office of Communications, Ed Scheidt, Sanborn created Kryptos. The sculpture was dedicated on November 3, 1990.
The sculpture consists primarily of four large copper plates, along with other elements consisting of water, wood, plants, red and green granite, white quartz, and petrified wood. The most prominent feature is a large vertical S-shaped copper screen resembling a scroll. Half of the screen consists of encrypted text, the characters all cut out of the copper. The copper panels were hand-cut, which took two years, nine jigsaws, and 900 blades.
Kryptos contains four separate encoded messages. Three of them have been deciphered, but the fourth continues to stump even the world’s best cryptologists. Sanborn says there is a fifth riddle that can only be solved when the four messages have been worked out.
The left half of the copper screen contains the encoded text. The right half of the copper screen is a series of alphabets, one above the other and is a “chart” called Vigeneries Tableaux. The chart refers to a cryptology system developed by 16th-century French cryptographer Blaise de Vigenère. (For a detailed description of how the Vigenère cipher system works, read this.)
In Kryptos this chart has been intentionally flipped so it can only be read from the back of the sculpture. The Vigeneries system, in combination with matrix coding systems, can be used to decipher the first three encoded texts on the left side of the screen.
Jim Gillogly, a computer scientist from Southern California, announced in 1999 that he had solved the first three passages. Only after this announcement did the CIA confirm that its analyst, David Stein, beat Gillogly to the punch. Initially, only his colleagues at the CIA knew of his accomplishment because he published his work in the classified journal Studies in Intelligence. The article was declassified in 2013. It has a detailed and fascinating (if you are into that sort of thing) description of how Stein accomplished the solution. It can be read here.
The solutions to the first three puzzles are:
BETWEEN SUBTLE SHADING AND THE ABSENCE OF LIGHT LIES THE NUANCE OF IQLUSION
The word “illusion” is misspelled, but Sanborn later confirmed that this was intentional. He said he did it, “To mix it up.”
IT WAS TOTALLY INVISIBLE HOWS THAT POSSIBLE ? THEY USED THE EARTHS MAGNETIC FIELD X THE INFORMATION WAS GATHERED AND TRANSMITTED UNDERGRUUND TO AN UNKNOWN LOCATION X DOES LANGLEY KNOW ABOUT THIS ? THEY SHOULD ITS BURIED OUT THERE SOMEWHERE X WHO KNOWS THE EXACT LOCATION ? ONLY WW THIS WAS HIS LAST MESSAGE X THIRTY EIGHT DEGREES FIFTY SEVEN MINUTES SIX POINT FIVE SECONDS NORTH SEVENTY SEVEN DEGREES EIGHT MINUTES FORTY FOUR SECONDS WEST X LAYER TWO
Initially, the solution revealed a message that ended with “FORTY FOUR SECONDS WEST ID BY ROWS.” On April 19, 2006, Sanborn contacted an online community dedicated to the Kryptos puzzle to inform them that the publicized solution to the passage was incorrect. He admitted to making an error in the sculpture by omitting an “X” used to separate sentences. Consequently, the final words of the passage should be “FOUR SECONDS WEST X LAYER TWO.”
The given coordinates, 38°57′6.5″N 77°8′44″W, are for a point that is approximately 174 feet (53 meters) southeast of the sculpture.
SLOWLY DESPARATLY SLOWLY THE REMAINS OF PASSAGE DEBRIS THAT ENCUMBERED THE LOWER PART OF THE DOORWAY WAS REMOVED WITH TREMBLING HANDS I MADE A TINY BREACH IN THE UPPER LEFT HAND CORNER AND THEN WIDENING THE HOLE A LITTLE I INSERTED THE CANDLE AND PEERED IN THE HOT AIR ESCAPING FROM THE CHAMBER CAUSED THE FLAME TO FLICKER BUT PRESENTLY DETAILS OF THE ROOM WITHIN EMERGED FROM THE MIST X CAN YOU SEE ANYTHING Q ?
Passage 4 — Still Unsolved
Over 20 years have passed since the first three passages were decoded, yet the final one continues to elude the best of brains. The final message, in coded form, is:
At the time Sanborn addressed the error in Passage 2, he also confirmed that the answers to the first three passages contain clues to the solution of the fourth. He has given a few clues since that time to help crack the code. In November 2010, Sanborn released a clue, publicly stating that “NYPVTT”, the 64th–69th letters in passage four, become “BERLIN” after decryption.
Four years later, the artist indicated that “MZFPK” become “CLOCK” after decryption. This clue tells us that the encryption system is superior to the German Enigma machine that baffled cryptologists during World War II. Unlike Enigma, the Kryptos code allows a letter to encrypt to itself. In this case, the “K” of “MZFPK” becomes a “K” in “CLOCK.” Sanborn further stated that in order to solve passage 4, “You’d better delve into that particular clock,” but added, “There are several really interesting clocks in Berlin.” This has caused speculation that the clock in question is the Berlin Clock, the Alexanderplatz World Clock, or the Clock of Flowing Time.
In an article published on January 29, 2020, by the New York Times, Sanborn gave another clue: at positions 26-34, “QQPRNGKSS” is “NORTHEAST.” He also said that will be the final clue.
If you think you have solved the final clue, you can verify that with Sanborn himself. He has an email-based process where, for a fee of $50, you may submit a potential solution. He receives regular inquiries, so far none of them successful. The artist has a plan in place to make sure the solution remains accessible, even if it is not solved before his death. He is 74 years old as of this writing.
Kryptos has sparked an international community of cryptologists, both professional and amateur, who confer regularly in an effort to break the code. Countless websites chronicle these efforts. If you are interested in diving deeper, you may wish to start with the CIA’s Kryptos page and Elonka.com, which has an encyclopedic collection of information about the sculpture and its mysteries.
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