By JOHN D. MCKINNON Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
LANGLEY, Va. -- The big mystery at the Central Intelligence Agency, sitting in a sunny corner of the headquarters courtyard, begins this way: "EMUFPHZLRFAXYUSDJKZLDKRNSHGNFIVJ."
That's the first line of the Kryptos sculpture, a 10-foot-tall, S-shaped copper scroll perforated with 3-inch-high letters spelling out words in code. Completed 15 years ago, Kryptos, which is Greek for "hidden," at first attracted interest mainly from government code breakers who quietly deciphered the easier parts without announcing their findings publicly.
Now, many mystery lovers around the world have joined members of the national-security establishment in trying to crack the rest. So far, neither amateurs nor pros have been able to do it.
The latest scramble was set off by "The Da Vinci Code," the thriller about a modern-day search for the Holy Grail. On the book's dust jacket, author Dan Brown placed clues that hint at Kryptos's significance. The main one is a set of geographic coordinates that roughly locate the sculpture. (One of the coordinates is off slightly, for reasons that Mr. Brown so far has kept secret.)
Gary Phillips, 27 years old, a Michigan computer programmer, started researching Kryptos last year, hours after learning about its Da Vinci Code connection. "Once it pulls you in, you just can't stop thinking about it," he says. Eventually, Mr. Phillips says, he let a struggling software business go under and took a construction job so he would have more time for solving Kryptos.
The quest to solve the fourth and final passage of Kryptos's message has spawned several Web sites -- including Mr. Phillips's -- as well as an online discussion group that has more than 500 members. The discussion group was founded by Gary Warzin, who heads Audiophile Systems Ltd. in Indianapolis. He became fascinated with Kryptos after visiting the CIA in 2001. But after months of trying to crack the code on his own, Mr. Warzin -- whose other hobbies include escaping from straitjackets -- decided he needed help.
Kryptos devotees are intrigued by the three passages that have been deciphered so far. They appear to offer clues to solving the sculpture's fourth passage, and possibly to locating something buried.
Sculptor James Sanborn, Kryptos's creator, says he wrote or adapted all three. The first reads, "Between subtle shading and the absence of light lies the nuance of iqlusion." Jim Gillogly, a California computer researcher believed to be the first person outside the intelligence world to solve the first three parts, came up with the translation, which includes the deliberate misspelling of the word illusion.
The second passage, more suggestive, reads in part, "It was totally invisible. How's that possible? They used the Earth's magnetic field. The information was gathered and transmitted undergruund to an unknown location. Does Langley know about this? They should: it's buried out there somewhere." That passage is followed by geographic coordinates that suggest a location elsewhere on the CIA campus.
The third decoded passage is based on a diary entry by archaeologist Howard Carter, on the day in 1922 when he discovered the tomb of the ancient Egyptian King Tutankhamen. It reads in part, "With trembling hands I made a tiny breach in the upper left-hand corner. And then, widening the hole a little, I inserted the candle and peered in. The hot air escaping from the chamber caused the flame to flicker, but presently details of the room within emerged from the mist. Can you see anything?" Mr. Sanborn confirms that the translations are accurate.
In addition to deliberate misspellings, there are letters slightly higher than others on the same line. Other possible clues are contained in smaller parts of the work scattered around the CIA grounds. Made of red granite and sheets of copper, these are tattooed with Morse code that spells out phrases like "virtually invisible" and "t is your position." In addition, a compass needle carved onto one of the rocks is pulled off due north by a lodestone that Mr. Sanborn placed nearby.
Those poring over the puzzle these days are thought to include national-security workers as well as retirees, computer-game players and cryptogram fans. Some devotees believe Kryptos holds profound significance as a portal into the wisdom of the ancients.
More typical is Jennifer Bennett, a 27-year-old puzzle aficionado who works as a poker-room supervisor near Seattle. She came across the Kryptos mystery last year while on maternity leave, as she searched for online games to play. Now back at work, she still spends an hour a day on Kryptos after her children have gone to bed. Like most would-be code breakers, she relies on pencil and paper.
Others, like Mr. Gillogly, the California code breaker, are partial to computers. Semiretired, he spent 30 years at the Rand Corp., then had his own software business. He estimates that his computers have tried at least 100 billion possible solutions to the fourth passage over the years. His main computer these days, he says, is a 1.7 GHz laptop with a Pentium 4 processor.
Experts say the fourth passage -- known to insiders as "K4" -- is written in a more complex and difficult code than the first three, one designed to mask patterns of recurring letters that code breakers look for.
Efforts at finding a solution have grown increasingly elaborate. Elonka Dunin, an executive at St. Louis computer-game company Simutronics, has hunted down other encoded sculptures by Mr. Sanborn in search of recurring themes. Some, like researcher Chris Hanson, who runs a company that makes software for constructing 3D landscape models, have mapped the CIA's headquarters or built virtual replicas of Kryptos.
Mr. Sanborn has grown uncomfortable with some of the attention his work is getting, particularly from those who see religious overtones. "I don't want my work manipulated in such a way that its meaning is somehow transformed," the Kryptos sculptor says. He dismisses any religious connotations or allusions to beliefs of the ancients.
Mr. Sanborn, who lives and works in Washington, burnished his reputation with Kryptos. He has exhibited around the world, including at the Hirshhorn Museum and Corcoran Gallery of Art. His more recent work has focused on the early development of atomic weapons, employing actual equipment from the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
He had no formal training in cryptography when he created Kryptos, but worked with a retired CIA official, Ed Scheidt, who was starting up an encryption-software business, Tec-Sec Inc. Mr. Sanborn says he withheld the full solution to the puzzle from Mr. Scheidt, as well as from the CIA itself. An agency spokesman says he isn't aware of anyone having solved the fourth passage.