Questions for Kryptos’ Creator
Sleuths seeking to solve the Kryptos puzzle often scour interviews with artist Jim Sanborn for clues about the cryptic sculpture, which is located at the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency. Below is a partial transcript of the Wired News interview with Sanborn conducted for a story on Kryptos. The interview has been edited for length and organization.
Wired News: Before creating the CIA sculpture, you never built something that involved cryptographic code. But since the CIA sculpture you’ve built a number of pieces that involve code. Are you changing your focus?
Jim Sanborn: The fact that my earlier work didn’t include cryptography doesn’t mean it excluded things dealing with secrecy. The work that happened before the CIA, and (was) the reason I was chosen (to do the CIA piece), dealt with invisible forces — albeit natural invisible forces. I built pieces about the Coriolis force that makes whirlpools in the Northern and Southern hemispheres turn in opposite directions. I also worked with the Earth’s magnetic field and worked with lodestones … from which we derived our knowledge of electricity. It was all involved in the secrets of nature before the agency chose my work to deal with the secrecy of man.
WN: Is it important to look at your other works, before and after Kryptos, to understand Kryptos?
Sanborn: For the student of cryptography it’s always helpful to gather as much information as possible when zeroing in on and encoding a system.
WN: A number of your works post- Kryptos incorporate elements that are in Kryptos, for example, the Cyrillic Projector (which has been solved) and a work that has sometimes been called the Untitled Kryptos Piece. Do these sculptures contain specific clues to help solve Kryptos? Or can you solve it without dealing with those at all?
Sanborn: Well, I’m not going to answer that question. (Laughs)
WN: You also have two other sculptures on the CIA grounds that are near the Kryptos sculpture. Are they related to Kryptos in some way?
Sanborn: Well, all I’ll say is basically I designed the piece(s) to act (such that) this part is easy, the next part is less easy, the next part is the most difficult. So if you consider the entrance to the new CIA building (to be) the entrance to the agency, the piece that’s out front is the most simplistic, basic code that there is. Then they get more sophisticated the further you (go onto the campus).
WN: Do the other pieces in the courtyard have clues for solving Kryptos?
Sanborn: I won’t say.
WN: Do you have to be on the CIA grounds in order to solve Kryptos?
WN: So just by reading the text taken from Kryptos and posted online, you can solve the puzzle?
Sanborn: Well, yeah. That doesn’t mean that what I’ve said in the piece doesn’t do something physically there at the agency. So the effect of the piece might affect something at the agency so that you’d have to see what I did at the agency.
WN: What do you mean?
Sanborn: In part of the code that’s been deciphered, I refer to an act that took place when I was at the agency and a location that’s on the grounds of the agency. So … you have to decipher the piece and then go to the agency and find that place. There are, for example, longitude and latitude coordinates on the piece, which refer to locations of the agency.
WN: When you say act do you mean an act that you did or that happened while you were there?
Sanborn: An act that I could have carried out. I refer to something I’d done out there.
WN: Something that you did do?
Sanborn: I made reference in the encoded text to something I could have done there.
WN: How many (cryptographic) techniques did you use (in Kryptos)?
Sanborn: I would think five or six.
WN: Are the coded systems you used the same systems that (CIA cryptographer) Ed Scheidt gave you or have they been altered?
Sanborn: Mr. Scheidt basically gave me an outline of historic and contemporary … encoding systems that have been formally used by the agency and were still used by the agency and other people (in 1990). He gave me a whole variety of possible systems to use and ways to modify all of those systems. But as a visual artist, I like to rely on systems that include visual (material) as well as digital material that can be deciphered by machines. It’s also well-known that I did use some matrix codes Ed gave me, and I have also designed visual systems for encoding, which are much harder for cryptographers to crack because they’re individualistic.
WN: But it’s still basically code systems that Scheidt gave you, right? I mean he could decipher Kryptos if he wanted to, correct?
Sanborn: No, he doesn’t know the solution. I made that very clear that I didn’t want him to be able to decipher what’s going on … that I’d be modifying systems and developing my own, which would make it virtually impossible for him to decipher all of it. I intended the 80 percent (of the text) that’s been deciphered to be deciphered and to be deciphered in stages and relatively quickly. The final part is obviously the, you know, the apex of the pyramid there.
WN: The Cyrillic Projector, when decrypted, turned out to be text from a classified KGB document instructing agents on how to gather and work with sources. The projector essentially dealt with covert obsolescence, that is, covert activities that became obsolete with the end of the Cold War. Does Kryptos also deal with covert obsolescence?
Sanborn: No. Not that it doesn’t say something about clandestine trade craft. A lot of the work (I do) deals with secrecy and … the modus operandi of spies — how they operate, how they turn sources and things like that. Even the (other) pieces at the agency that are in the courtyard — stone layers that have encoded text on them — sort of dealt with secrecy as an entity, which has existed through time for eons and generations. Cave people (for example) keeping secret their methods of killing a mammoth or something like that.
WN: If Kryptos is solved, will the answer be something like the Cyrillic Projector’s solution — text from a formerly classified document — or will it have a larger meaning?
Sanborn:: It’s a very different animal (from the Cyrillic Projector). The answer will be far more ambiguous. Of the part that’s been decoded already there is certain ambiguity in the last few sentences and it’s been open to interpretation, as has the whole piece.
WN: The Cyrillic Projector has some of the same code that’s on the CIA piece, but it does have some alterations. It’s not completely identical. Why is that?
Sanborn: If you make a body of work over many years so that anyone will know that it’s your art, you have a common denominator, which means you leave clues. You don’t just sign every artwork. There’s something about that particular artwork that you say, “Oh, that’s a Sanborn.” And (the coding) was one of the common denominators that I chose to leave in. Just like my lodestones. I brought my lodestones forward 10 years and used them at the agency. Then I brought Kryptos forward five years and used them after that. And I will continue to bring work back and carry ideas forward in order to get a continuum for the body of work.
WN: Is there anything planted on the CIA property that you’ve buried?
Sanborn: Oh, I won’t say.
WN: Well, you’ve mentioned before that each night after construction would finish for the day people from the CIA would come out to measure the materials.
Sanborn: Well the new (CIA) building was being built while I was there and at night there were teams that used, I believe, a neutron scan (on) everything that went into the agency so that they could find any bugs or anything that had been planted. (They) used ground-penetrating radar and various other means to see and find everything that was there. And I would suppose they did that with my piece as well, which makes it difficult to do whatever you’d like to do — not in an espionage way, but whatever you want to do.
WN: What do you mean? Were there things that you wanted to do with the sculpture that you were unable to do?
Sanborn: I didn’t say I was unable to do it, I just said it makes things difficult. When somebody comes in and X-rays everything you do every night, it makes it tough doesn’t it? (Laughs)
WN: So you did something, but they knew about it?
Sanborn:: No, I didn’t say that, either.
WN: There is someone who says he thinks he knows how the last section should be decrypted. John Wilson says that section three from Howard Carter’s diary is giving instructions to the reader for what they should do with the text in the last section in order to decipher it. For example, when it describes Carter putting the candle through the hole, Wilson says it’s an instruction for what to do with the text. So Wilson placed the word candle into the text. Is he on to something or off track?
Sanborn: I’m inclined to not comment. If a person deciphers and sends me the exact decipherment — if it can be deciphered exactly, considering most of my things are rife with mistakes on purpose — I’d probably let them know that they got it if they did. I will say that I have left instructions in the earlier text that refer to later text. (But) that’s as far as I’ll go.
WN: Do you want the puzzle of Kryptos to be solved?
Sanborn: Uhhh … I certainly want it to be considered. I had figured that the parts that have been solved already would have been done a lot quicker than they were. But that might just have been a question of focus of the cryptography community.
WN: One decoded section refers to a “WW.” It says specifically, “Who knows the exact location? Only WW.” Who is WW?
Sanborn: (Former CIA Director) William Webster.
WN: The CIA required you to write down the solution to the sculpture and give it to Webster. Webster has said that he forgot the solution. Did he ever actually know the answer?
Sanborn: Well, you know, I wasn’t completely truthful with the man. And I’m sure he realizes that. I mean that’s part of tradecraft, isn’t it? Deception is everywhere. I had to leave an envelope at the agency saying what was on the (sculpture). I gave it to William Webster at the dedication ceremony with a wax seal on it, but in fact I really didn’t tell him the whole story. I definitely didn’t give him the last section, which has never been deciphered.
WN: But he thinks you did give him the solution.
Sanborn: That’s his problem! (laughs)
WN: Do you remember what the solution is?
WN: You don’t remember the solution to your own sculpture?
Sanborn: No. I’ve got it hidden someplace but I’m not going to read it. I have done everything I can to forget (it). Because I don’t want to slip and give somebody information about it. I mean, you read the piece of paper, you burn it, and you forget it. That’s the only way information is kept secret. (Otherwise) it’s very difficult not to give clues. In the early days, anything I said was a clue. Now things are getting more and more refined the more people (are looking into) this. They are looking for shreds, tiny little slivers of information. So I have to be very careful not to go any further.
WN: So if you don’t know the answer how will you know if anyone has solved it?
Sanborn: I have the solution hidden someplace. So if somebody cracks it I can cross-check it.
WN: What if something happens to you?
Sanborn: The secret will probably pass away.
WN: You haven’t left it in your will?
Sanborn:: Well, actually I have. I think it’s important that whoever says that they cracked it will in fact find out whether they actually did. So from that standpoint, there does have to be some sort of historic record of what it says.