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Cracking the code

Mysterious 'Kryptos' sculpture challenges CIA employees

From Justine Redman and David Ensor
CNN

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"Kryptos," the large S-shaped wood and copper sculpture, sits outside the CIA cafeteria.

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Tune in to David Ensor's report on cracking the "Kryptos" code on American Morning with Soledad O'Brien and Miles O'Brien Monday at 7 a.m. ET.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- It's been hidden in plain sight at CIA headquarters for 15 years: a message, buried in code, on a large S-shaped copper and wood sculpture called "Kryptos."

"Kryptos," which means "hidden" in ancient Greek, was created by artist Jim Sanborn in 1990. Ever since, CIA staff have tried to crack the code as it sits outside their cafeteria.

"Does anybody know, besides you, what that section says?" CNN's National Security correspondent David Ensor asked Sanborn.

"I don't think so," he replied.

Now the race to decipher "Kryptos" has spread worldwide, accelerated by Dan Brown's best-selling book "The Da Vinci Code." Though the novel itself doesn't mention "Kryptos," the book's jacket holds references to it. Those references might not have been recognized but for a game on the publisher's Web site which states:

"Disguised on the jacket of The Da Vinci Code, numerous encrypted messages hint at the subject matter of Dan Brown's next Robert Langdon novel. And while their ultimate meaning will not be revealed here, we will give you clues as to how to locate and decipher them."

As the book's popularity soared, so did the sculpture's.

A Web forum where cryptographers collaborate on the puzzle went from attracting about 50 hits a day to thousands of hits a day, according to its moderator Elonka Dunin.

Moment of discovery

One of the sections of "Kryptos" that has been de-coded is a quote from the description by archaeologist Howard Carter of the moment when he discovered the tomb of Tutankhamen, the ancient Egyptian pharaoh.

"With trembling hands, I made a tiny breach in the upper left-hand corner, and then widening the hole a little, I inserted a candle and peered in."

"I don't presume to think that "Kryptos" sculpture has the import that finding Tutankhamen's tomb would have," Sanborn says, "but it's that same magic of finding something, finding a fossil or finding an Indian arrow head or something like that. It's magical, because it's something that was made in the past. So I wanted to somehow demonstrate that magic, for everyone, once it was cracked."

When Sanborn received his commission from the CIA, he had no experience in codes, but he learned quickly from retired CIA cryptographer Ed Scheidt.

The sculpture is a tribute to cryptography -- the analyzing and deciphering of complex codes written in numbers, letters and symbols.

Sanborn borrowed from the 16th century French cryptographer Blaise de Vigenere and the cryptographic method of transposing letters or changing their position in a message according to whatever method the writer devised.

But how did a novice come up with such a complex code?

"We all have codes. What's your ATM PIN number?" Sanborn explains. "So this was just one that I did, and I don't think it's unusual to design a code that's difficult to crack. I don't think it's hard, either."

Part of what has made "Kryptos" challenging is that few people actually get to see the sculpture because of its location. Even CNN wasn't allowed to visit the CIA site.

A photo of "Kryptos" appears on the CIA's Web site and describes it "as a piece of petrified wood supported by a large S-shaped copper screen that looks like a piece of paper coming out of a computer printer. On the 'paper' are inscribed several enigmatic messages, each written in a different code."

Sanborn did let CNN have a look at his little-known sister sculpture on the grounds of the Hirshhorn Gallery in Washington D.C. That artwork, titled "Antipodes," contains the same text, although it lacks some of the physical clues scattered on the CIA grounds.

Other clues have come, over the years, from the artist himself. Sanborn chooses his words carefully, and "Kryptos" enthusiasts comb through them even more carefully.

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