The CIA offices are decorated with tons of art, artifacts, and inventions. So many, in fact, it has its own curator. As you walk along the corridors of Langley, you’ll notice portraits of all the directors, parts of the Berlin Wall, a U-2 spy plane, and a puzzle—or rather a sculpture—called Kryptos that resides outside the cafeteria. Try breaking its code here.
The agency’s intent behind the design is derived from this mission statement:
People are the principle resource of the Central Intelligence Agency. It is their intellectual and physical energies that ultimately provide the national policymakers with superior information and analyses—the basis to formulate policies necessary to maintain this country’s position in the world. An aesthetically pleasing work environment at its headquarters is an important stimulus to the efforts of those officers assigned here.”
The CIA website details one of the more peculiar pieces of art. At the entrance to the New Headquarters building, the sculpture begins with two red granite and copperplate structures that flank the walkway from the parking deck. These stones appear as pages jutting from the earth, with copperplate between the pages, upon which there’s International Morse Code and ancient ciphers. There is also a lodestone (a naturally magnetized rock) co-located with a navigational compass rose.
In the courtyard, a calm, reflective pool of water lies between two layered slabs of granite and tall grasses. Directly across from this is the centerpiece of “Kryptos,” a piece of petrified wood supporting an S-shaped copper screen surrounding a bubbling pool of water.
- The petrified tree symbolizes the trees that once stood on the site of the sculpture and that were the source of materials upon which written language has been recorded.
- The bubbling pool symbolizes information being disseminated with the destination being unknown.
- The copperplate screen has exactly 1,735 alphabetic letters cut into it.
In addition to its purely aesthetic qualities, Kryptos contains codes that are important to the history of cryptography. When we stand in the CIA courtyard and look at Kryptos from the front, the petrified tree is to the left of the copper screen. From this vantage point, the left half of the copper screen is the encoded text and the right half of the copper screen is a series of alphabets, one above the other. There is a “chart” called Vigeneries Tableaux developed by 16th century French cryptographer Blaise de Vigenere. In Kryptos, this chart has been intentionally flipped so it can only be read from the back of the sculpture. The artist used this chart system, in combination with matrix coding systems, to encode the first three texts on the left side of the screen. The artist designed the fourth section (now referred to as K4) to be very difficult to crack, and as of yet, it has not been broken.
The sculpture has been a source of mystery and challenge for agency employees, other government employees, and interested people outside of government. In early 1998, a CIA physicist announced to the agency that he had cracked the code for three of the four sections. This was followed a year later by a public announcement from a California computer scientist that he had done the same. As varied as the codes in the sculpture are, so were the methods to crack them. The agency employee used pencil and paper, and the computer scientist used his computer. No one has yet to break the code for the remaining 97-character message, which utilizes a more difficult cryptographic code.
James Sanborn once said, “They will be able to read what I wrote, but what I wrote is a mystery itself.” Only time will tell if the final message to this multilayered puzzle is ever revealed.