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A New Clue to One of the World’s Most Baffling Cryptographic Mysteries

photo by CIA via Elonka.com

“Deception is everywhere,” Jim Sanborn told Wired in 2005, during a lengthy interview concerning Kryptos, his cryptographic sculpture on the grounds of the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. The main piece, made of copper, granite, quartz, and petrified wood, contains 1,735 letters arranged into four distinct messages, of which three have been deciphered. The fourth, which is only 97 characters long, remains among the world’s most famous unsolved codes. For two and a half decades Sanborn has been tossing out misdirections and refusals to comment, along with deterrents like “most of my things are rife with mistakes on purpose.” But this November he offered his second official clue to the puzzle’s final message. 

This all started back in 1988, during construction of the CIA’s New Headquarters Building. A bit of the construction budget had been set aside to commission art “both pleasing to the eye and indicative of the agency’s work.” So the CIA Fine Arts Commission (the same group that created the CIA Museum) evaluated proposals, and Sanborn’s Kryptos was the clear favorite, symbolizing ”the history of cryptography and the significance of intelligence gathering.” He received $250,000 for the work, which includes the main statue, a duck pond, a reflecting pool, and several other granite slabs throughout the grounds, some containing morse code and lodestones, others seemingly unmarked. He was given a “crash course” in cryptology by Ed Scheidt, former Chairman of the CIA’s Cryptographic Center, who helped him develop the code. But Sanborn says that he “wasn’t completely truthful” with Scheidt about the solution. 

There were a few restrictions placed on Sanborn: He had to give the puzzle’s solution to then–CIA Director William Webster (though he has since claimed that he did not actually give him the whole answer) and his materials were measured and X-rayed every night by the same team responsible for scanning all the construction materials for bugs. Sanborn acknowledged that this “made it tough” for him, but has still implied (and the deciphered code seems to bear out) that the answer to the Kryptos puzzle may involve something he buried in the CIA courtyard. 

The cypher is understood to include a riddle within a riddle, which will only make sense after all four passages have been solved. And even once the words themselves are determined, that still might not yield an answer, as Sanborn has said that one must be on the CIA grounds to fully solve the riddle — which won’t be easy, since the grounds are accessible only for those with “official business.”

The new clue is the word CLOCK toward the end of the message, following Sanborn’s only other official clue: BERLIN, which he revealed in 2010. This has led to speculation that the key to solving the message may have to do with the Mengenlehreuhr, a German clock built in 1975 that tells time via illuminated colored fields. Of course, this might also be more misdirection. Sanborn has even claimed that he himself no longer remembers the solution to the puzzle, “You read the piece of paper, you burn it, and you forget it,” he told Wired. “That’s the only way information is kept secret.”