Operation Capstone

Anderson art

How exactly does one go about solving Kryptos? Are you better off knowing about the solutions as put forward by the solvers thus far, and the various clues and hints that have been dispensed by its creators?  We have every reason to believe that many very smart people have spent significant time and effort, and availed themselves of highly sophisticated cryptanalysis techniques and technological resources without success.  Although it is possible that the solution is known within certain circles and knowledge of it the shared secret of this fraternity; I personally do not believe that anybody, public or IC, has solved it yet. Actually, I don’t even think we have yet decrypted the text that Sanborn refers to as K1, 2, and 3.

A central theme in Jim Sanborn’s and Ed Scheidt’s ongoing dialogue with would-be-solvers over the years is the way in which solved sections have plaintext that was derived without the fuller context of the clues that were intended to result in the solution. Somehow we got it right, but the wrong way, according to the deceptive duo’s cryptic commentary. Aside from their ministrations, we have the benefit of years of brute force attacks on the cipher text and we stand on the shoulders of many who made advances toward the ultimate solution and were kind enough to share their work. Over the years, there is a theme that has been subtly reinforced: the ultimate solution to K4 will rely upon taking the path that Sanborn intended through his “instructions.” What has this thinking produced so far? Bupkis.

Wait a sec, are we really just going to accept this? Do we have any concrete evidence that Sanborn is helping? Where is the all the plaintext we have recovered with his help? How has he elucidated his intended path, other than the mysterious cribs provided, which seem to be no help at all? Let’s say he was a “source”, a double agent or a dissident foreign national in an unfriendly country we want to know about. 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.

Conflicting with this, he is, as far as intelligence and data gathering is concerned with Kryptos, our most useful (and 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 exists, is the model of the kind of data the CIA has to deal with. Imagine if instead of “Berlin”, he said “Roswell”? You have to filter everything Sanborn says through a prism of possible meanings and logical leaps, and at every turn, there’s a big detour sign where if followed, you get lost in a maze of lateral logic and self-created content. With due respect to Sanborn’s cartographic cognomen, It’s a more like a Jackson Pollock map, with whatever you can think up splattered all over the place, and a “You are Here” icon in the middle, written in Braille with rocks.


No.  But close. More like a message to aliens. The Arecibo message for example. A self-decrypting message based upon a universal language: mathematics, delivered via binary code. Say you are an alien and you’ve got what it takes to point a radiotelescope to the sky; if you get this message- you’re going to be able to figure it out, easy. It says “Hi”, “Help”, or “We taste like chicken” depending on the receiver’s disposition.

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 owes its development to this desire to automate such tasks, and it was Thomas Flowers, a gifted electrician and machinist with experience at Dollis HIll, the UK’s central mail processing facility at the time, who in fact built Colossus from scratch, with 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 initial breakthrough in the Venona project, Arlington Hall’s version of Bletchley’s Tunny triumph, was made by Richard Hallock, An Assyriologist and Elamitologist (ed: I can’t make this stuff up folks-the NSA is watching, and probably laughing, but won’t deny it). The future Hall of Honor member Genevieve Feinstein collaborated. Later, yet another honoree, Meredith Gardner would further develop this work, leading ultimately to the exposure of the double agent Kim Philby, and his Cambridge 5 co-conspirators. All of this 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. What can we do differently? For starters, we can start to educate ourselves. 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.

Ed is the John Henry of cryptology.  Kryptos is the great challenge: the tunnel through the mountain, and Ed is one of the last of the breed of Steel Drivin’ Man. Some say he’s from Georgia, some say he’s from Alabam. But it’s wrote on the rock at the Big Ben Tunnel, that he’s an East Virginia Man. In our competition, the steam drill has a 25 year head start, and we have rocks, paper and scissors as our symbolic tools against Colossus. The CIA says they’ll kick in some surplus paper shredders. Place your bets, suckers!

Our dossier profile on “Ed” suggests he is male, possibly a member of a racial, social or economic minority or underclass, highly educated, incredibly skilled, retired from a career of high achievement, and motivated to make a statement. He was likely member of another agency prior to NSA. There are suggestions of involvement with Venona-like activity, and with SIGINT and COMSEC generally. He is likely to hold views that are skeptical of inductive forms of reasoning and belongs to the observational scientific tradition of Aristotle. If not from E Va, then he’s from Mo: the “please demonstrate” state, He has obviously been a teacher, and shows a skepticism one would associate with a “debunker” personality profile. Ed has worked in the field, and exploits our romantic and ill-informed ideas about what real spy work may be to our detriment as solvers. Symbolically, he is the first leg of our tripod: SIGINT, where the data is not words or pictures, but just code. His home is where the green mirrors face out, not in.

Jim is the artist. A performance artist specializing in impressionist and abstract expressionist landscapes. In an amazing academic career, Jim went from humble public school origins, exploring DC’s temple 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 what the hell his work says. Go Figure!

The profiling dossier identifies similar motivations on the part of Sanborn as seen with Scheidt, but from a more Southwesterly perspective relative to Meade. All the world is indeed a stage, and believe it or not, the CIA let Sanborn make the courtyard into one! It’s actually goes much deeper than most people think, and the green mirrors all reflect in. It has a captive audience on the edges of their seats every day. The performers read the critical reviews of their work from rival actors who didn’t even see the show. Meet the Pythia: guardian of the riddle of our future. This person, possibly female, is a polyglot polymath, and an expert in counterintelligence, misdirection, and obfuscation. Like the priests of Apollo at Delphi, we have to make sense somehow, of the Pythia’s unintelligible, 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.

Her weapons are words, and her specialty is deception through ambiguity and misleading contexts. Similar in theme to John Henry’s technologically imposed retirement, when Langley decided under pressure and amidst an identity crisis, to no longer employ civilian agents like journalists, artists, writers, Hollywood, etc in their HUMINT intelligence missions, the Pythia likely lost her job. This occurred sometime prior to the sculpture’s installation. Like John Henry, she has something to say about that, and we only learned later how much we needed her and people like her, a costly lesson for America. The Pythia is not the “I told you so” type, nor can she be.  She is the secret power behind the throne. We have a an old stock photo in the dossier, but she’s a master of disguise and her appearance is known to change daily.

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Take nothing at face value and don’t ask, see what she tells you.

The Pythia has an associate, Harpo.  Harpo is an actual artist who did all the “artsy” parts of the sculpture. He has a beard, is very smart, but sadly, has a strange form of speech impediment: everything he says is absolutely true, but not in relation to the context we thought. Luckily, for the reasons I mentioned before, as long as we know from the get go that he 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.

Ed has code. The Pythia has Words. Harpo has images, songs, anagrams, pantomimes, symbolic gestures, and games. In addition to artistic and musical talent, Harpo is an actor, with charades and improv being clear areas of strength. If Harpo is using language, SIGINT and HUMINT are probably useless.  IMINT?  Tutte, tutte goes Harpo’s horn.  Get it? Harpo is about double meanings. He’s incredibly deceptive, and uses our assumptions about context to fool us.  For example, you do know that Tutte, is properly pronounced “Tut”, not “Toot”, right? You have to crack some books, and take nothing at face value when appreciating Harpo’s silent black and white nickelodeon with subtitles in the phonetic alphabet.

Together, The Pythia and Harpo make up Kryptos’ Xanadu crew. Here, information is processed and revealed by inductive forms of reasoning. information is never presented as fact, nor accepted at face value, but rather as the self-provided answers to questions posed by the problems themselves. Using this camera obscura, they interpret the inverted and distorted images provided by the senses, and note the data in a book they call the World. It’s tricky, but it’s Langley through and through. They know only that they don’t know, and we know that they know that they do what they do quite well. Y’know?  So here at Langley we find the other two legs of the tripod: HUMINT and MASINT, at least historically, which is the context of the puzzle right? Don’t answer that.

Our psychological profiling dossier also suggests both Ed and Jim to be fictitiously created personalities of composite authorship, similar to the Renaissance conspiracy to author the works of Shakespeare. Real names are not important, and their ambiguity yet another smoke-and-mirror element of the intramural psy-op our beltway buddies have boosted with bait and booby-trapped babble. So just forget about all that for the time being. The Sphinx taught Trismegistus why one must be careful when gazing into the abyss. Look out how it worked out for him! For me? Just the facts please, Ma’am.

We need to focus on the idea of threes: deceptively simple (Ed, codes, Puzzle Palace), simply deceptive (Pythia, words, Xanadu), and the work of a virtuoso bullshit artist (Harpo, anything, who knows?). We need them all, but there is practically no overlap in their symbolic vocabularies. We are going to have to deal with this puzzle “old school cryp style” on their terms. Like Shao Lin or Wu Tang novices in the Gordon Liu Kung Fu movies, we must learn these ancient styles of mental martial hand-to-hand combat, lest we encounter them unexpectedly in the service of the temple. Meet the masters.


Just sit back, relax and let me do all the talking.  These guys are a little weird. Don’t ever call Mr. Friedman anything but that; if the guy in the glasses asks: the answer is Sphinges, [with a long e, like “Twinkees”], and if you need an icebreaker, the Brig likes weaving, lapidary and herbs. Seriously. Just go with it.

Don’t bring up Bacon, Shakespeare or the Voynich manuscript either. Egypt and Assyria are probably safe.  We don’t have another 25 years. Let’s focus on the big picture, (what a relief), it’s all about Chaos and Control.

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No, Max, not that Chaos and Control, KAOS and CONTROL. Ahh. The old “double meaning” trick.  Sorry about that chief, missed it by that much.

CONTROL has a policy of burning pertinent documents after cases are closed; the reasons were detailed in their Rules and Regulations book, but nobody can read them, since they burned the only copy they made.  That’s why I’m here.  That, and I heard something about a cafeteria, and a strong union benefit package.


Hello, WW?