In the middle of the courtyard at the CIA’s Langley headquarters is a 12-foot-tall, S-shaped copper scroll supported by a petrified tree. A small pool of water gurgles at its base, and on its paneling are 1,735 perforated letters.
Four such panels, stacked and welded together, form the scroll. The bend of the S and the position of onlookers determines how lines are read — left to right, backward and forward. Many strain and twist trying to read the illegible message. A futile act.
The coded installation is known as Kryptos, the Greek word for “hidden,” which explains its gibberish appearance. It’s a cipher.
It was sculptor Jim Sanborn’s idea to plop a cryptographic art installation into the central courtyard of the CIA, home to some of the greatest cryptographers in the world. The Washington native imagined Kryptos would provide short-term amusement in the wake of its 1990 ribbon-cutting by CIA Director William Webster, that the panels would eventually be deciphered, and the world would move on.
Thirty-two years later, Sanborn has endured innumerable requests for clues and countless incorrect declarations of what the cipher means. It’s also been appropriated, without permission, for two best-selling novels — Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and The Lost Symbol — and hit movies based on the books. In turn, the panels made headlines, and for two days Kryptos was the highest-searched subject on Google. Sanborn’s inbox was flooded.
“It was an unpleasant experience,” he says.
Today, with the cipher sitting just outside the windows of the world’s foremost cryptographers, one of the panels remains unsolved. In particular, the last 97 characters in the panel known as K4 continue to befuddle the crypto world.
“The NSA broke the first three panels pretty quickly,” says Robert Byer, director of the CIA museum.
While cyber-breakers at the National Security Agency used computers, Byer is proud to remind that CIA employee David Stein did it in 1999 by hand, an arduous process that, judging by his notes, took 400 hours of painstaking, convoluted thinking.
Byer was gracious enough to take time from setting up a new wing of the CIA’s in-house museum — opening sometime this fall, but not to the public — to walk us around Kryptos for a firsthand look at Sanborn’s enigma.
The plaza is typical for an office park, with grass, a smattering of picnic tables, and seating surrounded by tasteful landscaping. There are crape myrtles, shrubs, a koi pond, and a few jagged, polished pink granite outcroppings.
“They are part of Kryptos,” Byer says, motioning toward the granite and koi pond. “There are more outside, in the front of the building. Want to take a look?”
Scattered on the lawn along the long promenade that leads to the arched entrance of the New Headquarters Building — NHB to the employees — are three of those same granite structures. One has a Morse code motif on a ridge, another a compass rose pointing toward the unknown. Each integrates with Kryptos on the NHB’s other side.
Do the employees who pass these otherwise decorative stones know they are part of the Kryptos cipher?
“Probably not,” Byer says, ushering us toward the under-construction museum wing, its stenciled ceiling panels paying homage to, you guessed it, Kryptos.
Today, Sanborn lives with his wife, artist Jae Ko, on a private island in the Chesapeake Bay.
“It’s pretty great,” he says. “I’m looking at 180 degrees of water here.”
For years, he screened the avalanche of inquiries for clues and speculations, charging $50 each to ferret out the chaff.
“I’m down to about one a week,” he says, and that one, which seems to be automated, comes from the same person.
Sanborn admits to being relieved that Kryptos, while retaining its fascination, has shed some of its profile.
“I’m over that piece,” the sculptor says. “I mean, we’re talking 30 years ago.”
Kryptos marked Sanborn’s first “perforated” screen installation, one that was positioned at its current CIA headquarters for a sum of $250,000. Since then, he has installed dozens of copper screens, gradually perfecting the “magic lantern” method of projecting lettering on museum and gallery walls from the inside of perforated cylinders. He’s currently working on four such installations, all the while continuing to practice light projection methods onto international mountainsides and landmarks in addition to crafting fine art for galleries and museums.
One look at his website suggests that Sanborn is, to put it mildly, pretty good at all of the above. And Dan Brown would agree.
“Rick was talking again,” Brown writes in The Lost Symbol. “‘I’ve got to admit, I’m not really into artists, but I think this guy Sanborn’s a serious genius. I was just looking online at his Cyrillic Projector project? It shines giant Russian letters from a KGB document on mind control. Freaky.’”
Still, while it was Sanborn the CIA selected out of some 500 submissions, the duty to write the indecipherable cipher fell to Ed M. Scheidt, a name seldom associated with Kryptos, largely due to Scheidt’s preference for anonymity. How did Scheidt, now 83 and a longtime McLean resident, come to be paired with Sanborn?
“I was fairly known working with codes,” he says matter-of-factly over a steak-and-cheese sandwich at the McLean Family Restaurant, a longtime CIA hangout. “But I really don’t advertise.”
Scheidt’s CIA career began in 1963 after stints with the Army, where he developed an affinity for mathematics and coding, and the then-Arlington-based Armed Forces Security Agency, the predecessor to the NSA.
Scheidt retired in 1988 but returned the following year to help with Kryptos. During that process, he’d meet with Sanborn at secret locations throughout the region. The duo wrote down little and ditched electronic devices.
“We used voice as the medium” to communicate the coding schema, Scheidt says. “The concern for eavesdropping was real since the media had listening devices that could have picked up our conversation. We moved on occasions as a precaution.”
Remarkably, Sanborn was able to recall the impossibly complex coding scheme well enough to get back to the studio and hammer out the message, which might explain the few minor mistakes in the translated panels.
Those first three panels, Scheidt confesses, were intended to be broken quickly, and to the surprise of few, they were.
“They were designed not to last a long time,” he says. But with K4, the partners wanted to “make it a real challenge,” he says. “You’re seeing different codes. You’re seeing the results. There’s also an education element to it.”
At one point, Scheidt asked the CIA if he could even use an extinct language for K4.
“That gives me an advantage,” he says. “They said no,” he says, shrugging.
Of course, if anyone can decipher the undecipherable that Sanborn pieced together into its present form, it’s Scheidt. Who better, after all, than the code’s creator?
“Never tempted,” says Scheidt, adding that he’s a code creator, not a code breaker.
Now enjoying retirement, Scheidt isn’t necessarily one to spend his days doing crosswords and games like Wordle. Instead, the award-winning cryptographer is engaged in another modern kind of crypto — he doesn’t want to be too specific — that requires his particular knowledge and experience. Crypto with currency, one could say.
Meanwhile, back on the private island in the bay, Sanborn, now 76, ponders whether the solution to K4 should be taken to the grave or, at long last, made known.
He thought about making a non-fungible token, or NFT, out of it, “but I decided against that because NFTs are not doing very well.”
He’s also kicked around the idea of auctioning the answer off, with the highest bid going to efforts to expand climate science, “but I don’t know if it would go for $5 or $5 million,” he laughs. “Who knows these days what would happen for something like this? It is a fairly notable code, but it’s also a very esoteric subject. There is an impassioned following, but they aren’t exactly high rollers.
“So, the idea, hopefully, is that somebody will purchase it and then carry on and keep the secret. … That’s what I would prefer to happen.”
For now at least, Sanborn will continue to harbor the 32-year-old secret.
“My wife doesn’t really want to deal with it [without me],” Sanborn says. “Just keeping a secret is not an easy thing to deal with your whole life. … You have the people trying to figure it out, crazy people that are angry just because you have a secret that they don’t know the answer to. So, it’s a burden that not everyone wants to take on.”