chiseled into marble in the main lobby: "And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." But in recent years, another text has been the subject of intense scrutiny inside the Company and out: 865 characters of seeming gibberish, punched out of half-inch-thick copper in a courtyard.
It's part of a sculpture called Kryptos, created by DC artist James Sanborn. He got the commission in 1988, when the CIA was constructing a new building behind its original headquarters. The agency wanted an outdoor installation for the area between the two buildings, so a solicitation went out for a piece of public art that the general public would never see. Sanborn named his proposal after the Greek word for hidden. The work is a meditation on the nature of secrecy and the elusiveness of truth, its message written entirely in code.
Almost 20 years after its dedication, the text has yet to be fully deciphered. A bleary-eyed global community of self-styled cryptanalysts—along with some of the agency's own staffers—has seen three of its four sections solved, revealing evocative prose that only makes the puzzle more confusing. Still uncracked are the 97 characters of the fourth part (known as K4 in Kryptos-speak). And the longer the deadlock continues, the crazier people get.
Whether or not our top spooks intended it, the persistent opaqueness of Kryptos subversively embodies the nature of the CIA itself—and serves as a reminder of why secrecy and subterfuge so fascinate us. "The whole thing is about the power of secrecy," Sanborn tells me when I visit his studio, a barnlike structure on Jimmy Island in Chesapeake Bay (population: 2). He is 6'7", bearded, and looks a bit younger than his 63 years. Looming behind him is his latest work in progress, a 28-foot-high re-creation of the world's first particle accelerator, surrounded by some of the original hardware from the Manhattan Project. The atomic gear fits nicely with the thrust of Sanborn's oeuvre, which centers on what he calls invisible forces.
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