The Capstone Project

Anderson art

How exactly does one go about solving Kryptos? Are you better off knowing about the solutions put forward by the solvers thus far, and the all the various clues and hints that have been dispensed by its creators?  We have every reason to believe that many smart people have spent significant time and effort, and availed themselves of highly sophisticated techniques and technological resources without success.  But who knows really?  Although it is possible that the solution is known within certain circles, and this knowledge is the shared secret of a cryptic cabal; I personally do not believe that anybody, public or IC, has solved it yet.  I’m pretty sure of that, actually.

A central theme in Sanborn and Scheidt’s ongoing dialogue with would-be-solvers over the years is the way in which solved sections have plaintext solutions that were derived without the fuller context of the clues that were intended. Somehow we got it right, but the wrong way, according to the deceptive duo’s criticism. Aside from their baffling babble, we have the benefit of years of brute force attacks on the cipher text and we stand on the shoulders of many IC pros who made advances toward the ultimate solution. Many were kind enough to share their work, and helpfully, most of it is declassified, yet, still we have nothing. Over the years, there emerged a theme that has been subtly reinforced in many ways: the ultimate solution to K4 will rely upon taking the path that Sanborn intended through his “instructions”.  What has this thinking produced so far? Scheidt.

Wait a sec folks, are we really just going to accept this? Do we have any concrete evidence that Sanborn is telling the truth? Where is the all the plaintext we have recovered with his help? How has Sanborn elucidated his intended path, other than through the mysterious riddles provided, which seem to be no help at all? Oh, by the way, he admitted lying to the director of the CIA about the solution.

Let’s just say hypothetically that he was a “source”, a double agent or a dissident foreign national from an unfriendly country which we want to know about, infiltrate or overthrow. Would we evaluate his statements in the same way, and cut him the same slack in the logical inconsistencies of his unfolding story? No, of course not. We would assume an intent to deceive a priori.  We are faced with an ancient paradox.  Sanborn is a Cretan.  When we ask him, “Is it true what they say, that all Cretans are liars?”, what answer should we expect?

As far as intelligence and data gathering is concerned with Kryptos, despite his flaws, he is our most useful (and pretty much only) asset. He and also the rocks, ponds, dits, dots, stumps and rest of that Xanadu hoodoo. It is our job to figure out what, if any of it, applies to our problem and in what context may we use the data to help us solve it. Sanborn, if he even exists, is the model of the kind of data the CIA has to deal with all the time. Imagine if instead of “Berlin Clock”, he said “Roswell”, or “Oswald”? You have to filter everything Sanborn says through a prism of possible meanings and logical leaps, and at every turn, there are coded detour signs saying: “step right this way suckers.”

If you chased all these wild geese along with the rest of the flock, you soon became hopelessly lost in a labyrinth of lateral logic and self-created content. When interacting with other solvers, your ideas ended up sounding as cogent as Harpo’s in the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup. With all due respect to his cartographic cognomen, Sanborn’s maps are more like Jackson Pollock’s, with whatever he could think up splattered all over the place. There’s a “You are Here” icon at the entrance written in Braille with rocks, to lead the blind to the blind, apparently. Up ahead, a sine post for the twilight zone sits across from a grassy water hole in the plaza. Making the third leg of this courtyard Bermuda Triangle, coordinates deciphered in the sculpture refer to a non-descript area of lawn opposite the copper codetext, which in all photography that I’ve seen, is tantalizingly out of view.  What’s over there? Who’s on first?

Now let’s all take a deep breath. It is possible to see all this as too contrived?  A clue perhaps, that there is something behind the curtain that the emerald city wizard doesn’t want us to see? A coverup?

Part of the “whole story” that keeps from people from asking too many questions, is the intimidation factor of the supposed fact that the CIA has spent 25 years on it and hasn’t figured it out. So what chance do we, the amateurs have? Better than you’d think. They’ve had 25 years, which is a long time even by federal government standards. How they’d do with predicting the fall of communist Russia? Meh. They had 44 years on that one, and still missed it by that much. At least they gave Jimmy Carter the heads up about the Ayatollah, right? Umm, no, not exactly. So in Sanborn’s “November Surprise”, when they dedicated Kryptos, the sculptor passed off an envelope containing a fugazi solution to WW, the DCIA, and apparently got away with it. What do you think? A case of BOHICA?

They eventually got it it? Right? Well, we can summarize their progress by using the Rumsfeld Disambiguation: It’s a known unknown. Sanborn’s a virtuoso bullshit artist, and it’s been 25 years. How do you think they’re doin’ over there on his puzzle? Don’t ask. It’s classified.


In the history of 20th century cryptology, and through it the rise of computers, software and the internet, the major advances were often made when performing work that was deemed “below” the abilities of more “competent” minds. In fact, Colossus, the first computer, owed its development to the desire to automate such dull tasks in code breaking during WWII. It was Thomas Flowers, a gifted electrician and machinist with experience at Dollis HIll, the UK’s central mail processing facility, who in fact built Colossus from scratch, not Alan Turing. The mailman, not the genius; the guy who actually brought the crazy idea into reality and put it on the genius’ doorstep. He had practically no design engineering help but for the guidance of Bletchley’s gifted, but eccentric staff of linguists and mathematicians and a prototype named after Heath Robinson, who was Rube Goldberg’s “opposite number” over at GCHQ. The bigwigs at the time were fixated on the Bombe, which became but a footnote to history, after Colossus and its descendants came to power.

The initial breakthrough in the Venona Project, Arlington Hall’s version of Bletchley Park’s Tunny triumph, was made by Richard Hallock, An Assyriologist and Elamitologist.  In case you are wondering, those are languages that have been dead for over 2000 years, and make Latin look like Instagram by comparison. The future Hall of Honor member Genevieve Feinstein collaborated, along with yet another honoree, Meredith Gardner (who was a guy, btw). Together, as a team, they would further develop this work, leading ultimately to the exposure of the double agent Kim Philby.

Lest I be too hard on the CIA, things are no easier to see for our myopic British buddies: the mole was actually in charge of finding communist moles on behalf of our four-eyed five-eye friends, so it was hard. Philby’s best buddy just happened to be the CIA’s Director of Counterintelligence, James Jesus Angleton, who was present at the creation of the whole scheme. Philby baffled MI-6 for 20 years using an ingeniously complicated smokescreen to foil suspicions of his treasonous betrayal. First, he lied. When confronted, he merely denied it. Strenuously. Crossed his heart and hoped to die. So there you had it: It wasn’t cricket, you see, to be so impolite as to question the word of one of your old Cambridge classmates.  He would have gotten away with too, if it weren’t for those meddling kids.

Philby’s exposure, along with a treasure trove of actual intelligence, resulted from the analysis of what was thought to be a boring, mindless waste of time: attempting to find flaws in Soviet use of one-time-pads in practice through traffic analysis.  This was not thought of at the time as high priority, and computers couldn’t really help yet. The vast majority of the work was performed by female cryptanalysts, often pigeonholed for seemingly dead-end, intractable problems like these, and the work performed by hand with paper, pencils, scissors and glue.

So the fact that you are not a trained linguist, mathematician, or code breaker, and never worked at any three letter agencies, likely makes no difference in whether you end up solving Kryptos. If it did, it would have been solved already. It is obviously designed to defeat competent cryptanalysis, however, there is the distinct possibility that it is vulnerable to incompetent cryptanalysis; which thankfully, is the exact type in which I specialize. In deference to Bletchley’s naming convention for its huts, I propose to call ours the Sanbornery.

What can we do differently than the PTB? For starters, we can attempt to educate ourselves and learn lessons from the past. We are dealing with one of the last, great cryptology puzzles of the pre-computer era. 25 years of throwing computers at it have gotten us nowhere.  It should be obvious now that Ed Scheidt has an artistic statement involved here too, which has been expressed ironically through the negative space: the gaping absence of any computer based, brute-force solution thus far.

Jim is an artist: a performance artist specializing in abstract landscapes. In an amazing academic career, Jim went from humble public school origins, exploring DC’s catacombs under the LOC, to Oxford, studying archeology and sociology. Somehow, he ended up being an artist, hired by the CIA, whose claim to fame is that nobody seems to be able to understand exactly what the hell his work says. Go Figure! At least they have plausible deniability as to the message.  Soon they will deny that the sculpture is even there! Is it?

All the world is indeed a stage, and believe it or not, the CIA let Sanborn make the courtyard into one. It makes sense. Webster mentioned “a sense of place”, and I suppose Langley’s denizens feel at home performing in the global theater. The spooks have a captive audience on the edges of their seats every day. The performers read the critical reviews of their work in newspapers written by rival actors who didn’t even see the show. The director in this theater in the round is the Pythia: guardian of the riddle of our future. This oracle is an expert in deception, misdirection, and obfuscation. Like the priests of Apollo at Delphi, we have to make sense somehow, of the Pythia’s fume-stoked prophecies, and we need to do it quick: the clients are waiting. We sell a commodity called information, and it has no shelf life.

Luckily, for the reasons I mentioned before, as long as we know from the get go that Sanborn is intentionally manipulating the context of his answers to deceive us, he is a fairly straight talker. He’s a Renaissance man, a playboy at heart, and we should read him the way we would read the magazine: skip the articles, look at the pictures, and check out the centerfold. Take nothing at face value when appreciating his silent black and white nickelodeon with subtitles in the Morse and Phonetic alphabets.

This should be old hat to the Xanadu crew, and I foresee them eventually making progress on the puzzle someday. Maybe.

At Langley, the self-provided answers to questions posed by the problems themselves spontaneously self-illuminate. Using this amazing camera obscura, they interpret the inverted and distorted images provided, and note the data in a book they call “the World”.  I’m not kidding. Whether it’s magic or smoke and mirrors remains an open question. You can’t judge a book by it’s cover story. Unfortunately, they have a policy of burning pertinent documents after cases are closed. The reasons were detailed in their Rules and Regulations book, which nobody can read, since they burned the only copy.

That’s why I’m here.  It’s buried out there somewhere along with a compass. Maybe.