MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The CIA has made more than a few mistakes over the last couple of years. Well, here's one that's not the agency's fault. The story comes to us by way of wired news, and it has to do with a sculpture on the grounds of CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. The sculpture has baffled code breakers for years. It's called Kryptos, and it features nearly 2,000 letters divided into four sections. Three of those coded sections have been solved, but just this week the artist and author of the code revealed that there's an error, and that could be why sleuths have had a hard time figuring out the last part of the puzzle. To help us sort through what happened, we got the sculptor, Jim Sanborn, on the phone, with game developer and part-time Kryptos devotee, Elonka Dunin.

Ms. ELONKA DUNIN (Cryptologist, Game Developer): An analogy that I use when I'm trying to describe the situation to non-cryptographers is Jim came up with a recipe for something, and then he gave us the recipe, but he wanted to make it look good on the page, and so he removed one element without paying a lot of attention to which element he removed, and he accidentally removed a key ingredient, like he removed yeast. And we took the recipe and we made what the recipe said, and we said, hey, Jim, it tasted really great, thanks. And then, but later, when he checked on it, he's like, oops, they ended up making cookies and I intended for them to make cupcakes. And so he let us know that, well, there was this one other little piece that you probably want to try cooking it again. And so we're, like, very grateful and saying, okay, well, we had a lot of fun with what we did before, but it's good to know that we're going to make it the way you actually intended, so thank you.

BLOCK: Now, Jim, this missing ingredient, if I understand this right, was the letter X that you had taken off of one line for aesthetic reasons. It didn't balance.

Mr. JAMES SANBORN (Sculptor): Yeah, I mean, I, there were several ways I could manipulate the lines of text so I would end up with a panel that's square on the sides. Because an M is much longer than an O, if you have many Ms then you have a longer line. And so I wanted it, I wanted to have some control. So there were some things I chose to leave out, and I did leave an X out. The Xs more or less represented a period. But because a period isn't really easy to encode, I chose to use Xs. So after the end of each phrase, I would put an X. Well, in taking this one X out, the cryptographers were, you know, going swimmingly along and thinking that they had gotten the whole thing and it wasn't a period. And it is interesting that you can leave out one little period and it makes such a huge difference.

BLOCK: Elonka, this all hinges on this troublesome panel which is called part two of the puzzle. What does part two say?

Ms. DUNIN: It's a few sentences, and what we thought that it said was, it was totally invisible. How is that possible? They used the earth's magnetic field. X. The information was gathered and transmitted underground to an unknown location. X. Does Langley know about this? They should. It's buried out there somewhere. X. Who knows the exact location? Only WW. This was his last message. X. 38 degrees 57 minutes 6.5 seconds north, 77 degrees 8 minutes 44 seconds west, ID by rows. And then what it actually says, now that we have this from Jim, and I'll just say the last sentence, is 38 degrees 57 minutes 6.5 seconds north, 77 degrees 8 minutes 44 seconds west. X. Layer two.

BLOCK: Well, it's all perfectly clear to me now. Thank you for straightening that out.

Ms. DUNIN: Yeah.

BLOCK: Let me try to break this down a little bit. This wrong version, ID by rows, has been out there for what, almost eight years now, right?

Mr. SANBORN: That's right.

BLOCK: So, Elonka, was one of the things that you said to Jim, uh, Jim, what took you so long?

Ms. DUNIN: No, I was actually very excited. One of our questions all along, especially about part four, is, is the reason that it hasn't been solved yet because there's a mistake in it somewhere? And so I'm very pleased to hear that Jim is going through and checking his work, because if there's another mistake in K4, and I don't know if he's worked backwards through that yet…

Mr. SANBORN: No, that one's actually safe and sound and fairly accurate.

BLOCK: You sure about that, Jim?

Mr. SANBORN: Yes, I'm pretty sure about that one.

BLOCK: Well, Elonka Dunin, good luck figuring out part four.

Ms. DUNIN: Thank you.

BLOCK: And, Jim Sanborn, thanks for being with us.

Mr. SANBORN: Thank you.

BLOCK: Jim Sanborn is the artist who created the Kryptos sculpture at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Elonka Dunin is a game developer and a co-moderator of a Yahoo group devoted to cracking the code of Kryptos.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.