I infiltrated CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia on a top secret mission.
Okay, “infiltrate” might be an overstatement. I spent several weeks getting permission from CIA media relations. I have undergone a thorough background check. I am accompanied by several CIA officers at all times. So I’m not quite Jason Bourne.
Yet, I made it inside CIA headquarters, and I am, in fact, on a mission. I am on a quest to decode Kryptos, one of the most famous unsolved puzzles in the world. In 1988, the CIA commissioned Maryland-based artist Jim Sanborn to create a sculpture for its expanding headquarters. The agency wanted to install artwork that would be relevant to its mission to unlock secrets.
“More than 30 years later, the code has not been fully cracked, even by the CIA itself.”
The main part of Kryptos is a corrugated copper wall about 20 feet long and 12 feet high. In the copper, Mr. Sanborn etched about 1,800 seemingly random letters and four question marks. It’s a code, a secret message. No one knows the solution except Mr. Sanborn and possibly a former CIA director. Kryptos was dedicated in 1990; more than 30 years later, the code has not been fully cracked, even by the CIA itself.
Admittedly, it was partially cracked. In the 1990s, hobbyists and CIA personnel independently solved three of the four sections. Once decoded, the first section of the sculpture contains a mysterious phrase from Mr. Sanborn on “the subtle shading and nuance of illusion”. The second section contains what appear to be GPS coordinates and clues that something is buried. The third section is a paraphrase by archaeologist Howard Carter describing his 1922 experience of looking through an opening to discover King Tut’s tomb.
But the fourth section, called K4 by fans, remains opaque. Over the past 10 years, Mr. Sanborn has given tantalizing clues, revealing that K4 contains the words “northeast”, “Berlin” and “clock”. But so far it remains unbroken. It’s only 97 letters, but they might be the most infuriating 97 letters ever written.
A few months ago I joined an online community of thousands obsessed with Kryptos. Several times a week, I get messages about the latest theories. Maybe the code is related to Egyptian hieroglyphs? Or Dante’s “Inferno”? The theories are endless and infinitely creative. There is also speculation about what comes after K4. Mr. Sanborn said that even after all the codes in the sculpture are solved, there will still be another mystery. Maybe buried treasure? A combination to a safe? Nobody knows.
Mr. Sanborn is smart, but what I really like about the Kryptos phenomenon is the tenacity of the solvers. They are still going there 30 years later. It’s a diverse group – computer scientists, artists, doctors, professional cryptographers – all united by this quest. What seed! Well, some might call it an unhealthy obsession. But I prefer to see it as grain.
Before my field trip, I post a message to the Kryptos community asking what they want me to research. I get a deluge of requests: Bring a compass and see if it behaves strangely. Look for the shadows cast on the sculpture. Look for strange markings on its bottom. Look inside nearby holes.
One summer Saturday, armed with my list, I go through security and into the main CIA building. Turns out it’s a bit of a hike to get to Kryptos. The Langley complex is huge and surprisingly serene. There are lawns, elms and a koi pond. Without the Afghanistan War helicopter displayed near the parking lot, it could be mistaken for an upscale college campus.
We finally come to glass doors that lead to a courtyard with red patio tables and chairs. And there it is, in all its frustrating glory: Kryptos. It’s smaller than I expected. In my mind, I had somehow built it to rival Stonehenge. But it’s also prettier than I expected. The undulating shape of the sculpture is almost relaxing and the oxidized green hue of the copper makes it majestic. “Can I touch it?” I ask.
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My guide – friendly but strict CIA historian Randy Burkett in a black suit – nods yes. I run my hand over the cut out letters. The copper is cold, despite the heat of the day. Maybe he will reveal his secrets to my touch, like when Spock puts his hands on someone’s face. Unfortunately, there is no rush of images in my brain.
Before my visit to Langley, I emailed Jim Sanborn, and he agreed to an interview. I was afraid he was grumpy, but he actually seemed ready to talk, at least to a point. Creating Kryptos wasn’t easy, he says. He had to take courses in cryptology from a retired CIA agent. As for the sculpture itself, “I went through 15 different wizards, 900 jigsaw blades and 12 Bosch jigsaws over two and a half years,” says Sanborn.
Thirty years later, he has mixed feelings about his most famous work. On the one hand, he gets annoyed at the thousands of people pestering him for hints or clues – some politely, some less so. “I received threatening letters, threatening phone calls, strange packages left outside my porch that I had to open almost automatically,” he says. On the other hand, he is grateful that Kryptos continues to fascinate: “Honestly, the greatest satisfaction I have is having created a work of art that just keeps on giving.
After my visit to the CIA, I post my observations on the Kryptos bulletin board. They’re deeply obscure, but that’s the point. I write about the whirlpool adjoining the sculpture, my compass goes crazy when placed on a nearby magnetic stone, and the position of the bolts that run through the middle of Kryptos.
I get a bunch of emails back. Overall, the community is grateful, but they have more questions. Was the swirl spinning clockwise or were the waves random? Do you think there might be a speaker or microphone hidden inside the drain, metal box or hole in the granite? I don’t have the answers. I did my best, but obviously didn’t observe closely enough.
I decide to contact Mr. Sanborn one last time. It should be noted that he is not only a talented artist, he is also a shrewd businessman. A few years ago, he got upset that he wasted so much time responding to emailed guesses, so he instituted a new rule. You can send him a guess, and he’ll send you a short response telling you if you’re right or wrong. For this, you pay him $50.
I’m jealous. Fifty bucks for a sentence or two. This is an enviable rate for a writer. Other Kryptos community members are not fans of the $50 charge. On the message board, some K4 resolvers call the rule “sticky” and accuse Mr. Sanborn of scamming.
I send $50 via PayPal and submit my guess, which is just that – a guess. My method was more impressionistic than scientific: I tried to enter the mind of Jim Sanborn and find something in his voice. My guess is, “It took you long enough. Two paces northeast of the coordinates. Face 7 p.m. on the Berlin clock. Take 12 steps. Dig. Enjoy!” I see it as a lottery ticket, one in 4 billion chance that it’s the right letters.
A few days later, I got my answer. Jim thanked me for the money, but “unfortunately it’s not the decryption”. Not the wisest $50 I’ve spent in my life, but it was oddly satisfying to give it a shot.
—This essay is adapted from Mr. Jacobs’ new book, “The Puzzler: One Man’s Quest to Solve the Most Baffling Puzzles Ever, from Crosswords to Jigsaws to the Meaning of Life,” which will be published by Crown on April 26.
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