Artist reveals new clue to help crack mysterious Kryptos code at CIA

Michael Walsh
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'Kryptos' by James Sanborn

'Kryptos' by James Sanborn, is one of the three sculptures at the George Bush Center for Intelligence grounds. It runs a theme of information gathering and includes an encoded copper screen. (Jim Sanborn)

Only time will tell if “clock” will unlock this CIA secret.

The artist behind the Kryptos sculpture in the CIA headquarters’ courtyard released another clue to the code-breakers dead set on deciphering its mysterious message. 

Kryptos, unveiled in 1990, contains four sections of encrypted messages, three of which have already been solved.

The fourth, however, has become one of the most famous unsolved ciphers in the world – drawing amateur and professional cryptanalysts to this work of art in Langley, Va.

James Sanborn, now 69, has apparently grown impatient with the Kryptos sleuths, whose ranks swelled with the success of Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code,” and revealed another word on Nov. 14.

“There are several reasons for that. The 14th is my birthday and [November is] the anniversary of the Berlin Wall coming down,” Sanborn told Yahoo News. “It was a convergence.”

The 70th through 74th characters in the 97-letter-message spell out “clock.”

Since Sanborn already revealed that positions 64 through 69 spell out “Berlin,” we now know that 64 to 74 means “Berlin clock,” as the New York Times points out.

“There are several really interesting clocks in Berlin,” Sanborn told the broadsheet when asked whether this phrase references the famous timepiece called the Mengenlehreuhr, or Berlin Clock.

“It’s also been four years since I did a clue. Another not small reason I did another is that there were a lot of negative code cracks, so I wanted to be more specific on how the word 'Berlin' was used,” he said to Yahoo News over the phone.

He said he referenced an international city because he did not want the artwork to have a strictly national profile.

“I decided to globalize it. The people who contact me are from far-flung places. Largely the people contacting me now are from outside the U.S.,” he said.

Nearly 3,000 Kryptos devotees belong to a Yahoo group dedicated to solving the third section.

“Our goal is to provide a comfortable environment for the open exchange of ideas,” reads a message on the group's page. “This can be difficult to achieve when one of the individual goals has always been to be ‘the one’ to crack the cipher.”

Each would-be member must agree to a set of ground rules to encourage the free exchange of information and protect each individual’s achievements.

These include crediting the entire group with cracking the code if any individual member does so by relying heavily on information provided by other members.

Back in 1998, a CIA physicist told the agency that he cracked the code for three of the sections using pencil and paper. A computer scientist from California publicly announced that he, too, had solved the same three sections with his computer, according to the CIA.

However, several reports indicate that NSA employees beat them to the punch but kept quiet about the success.

Sanborn, who is celebrated for his work with stone and related materials, worked with a retired CIA cryptographer to write the code.

To create Kryptos, which means “hidden” in Greek, he used polished red granite, quartz, copperplate, lodestone and petrified wood.

The intrigue will not die with Sanborn if no one solves it before he passes away. He has given some people close to him the ability to figure out what it says just in case.

“I haven’t told them what the code is,” he said, “but I told them how they might be able to find out.”