Overestimating the CIA?

Kryptos Sculpture by James Sanborn

Hiding in Plain Sight
Kryptos is a sculpture created by James Sanborn in 1990. It’s located at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, and it’s mostly known for the four encrypted messages on it.

Three of them have been decrypted (it took almost 10 years), but one has endured what is probably the biggest non-covert attempt at code-breaking in the world for almost 20 years. CIA analysts have been working on it, of course, but like Fermat’s Last Theorem, Kryptos has attracted the attention of amateurs all around the world. If you’re interested in throwing your hat into the ring, there’s a pretty active Krytpos Yahoo Group you can join.

Does This Tell Us Anything About the CIA?
But what I find most interesting about the Kryptos code is that its creator didn’t expect things to unfold that way:

Sanborn, who has had no training in cryptography, says that he collaborated with a prominent fiction writer in composing the text to be encoded, and then worked with a retired CIA encryption official for four months to create the code. He insists that the code can be solved and says that when he placed the sculpture at Langley, in the thick of the world’s best code-breakers, he thought it would take only months for them to solve Kryptos.

So he had no training in cryptography, but he worked with a CIA cryptographer so we can assume that the strength of the code mostly comes from that person. Yet even after getting counsel from him or her, he still expected the code to last only a few months. If someone with inside information and professional help overestimated the CIA by that much, chances are that people without inside access are overestimating the capabilities of the CIA by even more (when it comes to code-breaking, at least, but probably also for other things). And that’s not even counting the fact that in the past 20 years code-breaking techniques and computers have gotten better; Sanborn expected people to break his code with 1990 tools and knowledge.


Kryptos Sculpture at CIA HQ photo

Most people’s knowledge of the CIA comes from fiction (movies, books), and they are usually portrayed as being almost magically effective (they know everything, are always at the right place at the right time, etc).

But the reality might be closer to Kryptos than Hollywood. Legacy of Ashes by Tim Weiner argues that “America’s foes and rivals have long overrated the Central Intelligence Agency” and that the agency is “mainly a reservoir of incompetence and delusions that serves no one’s interests well.”

Kissinger told [Chinese Prime Minister Chou En-lai] that he “vastly overestimates the competence of the CIA.” Chou persisted that “whenever something happens in the world, they are always thought of.” Kissinger acknowledged, “That is true, and it flatters them, but they don’t deserve it.”

I haven’t read that book yet (it’s on my long “to read” list), but Weiner’s conclusions sound plausible: A huge government bureaucracy, even if it is doing spy stuff rather than healthcare or education, almost can’t help but become bloated and ineffectual.

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2 Responses to “Overestimating the CIA?”

  1. kryptosfan Says:

    I too have become disillusioned with the myth of American Intelligence. To some extent, I don’t blame them. James Angleton was brilliant but left a snarled legacy at best. Then you consider the point you brought up about bureaucracy and add in rivalry with the NSA and FBI and I’m just glad they can get anything done. From everything I’ve read (including a copy of an Army Manual on basic cryptology), military applications of cryptoanalysis tend to rely on large amounts of communications encrypted with the same methods and sometimes even the same keys. Kryptos is a fairly unique, not counting other Sanborn cipher sculptures, and doesn’t give folks who use methods based on large volume much to work with. The last part is only 97 letters long as well which makes it hard to figure out. I’m out trying to find help solving K4 actually and yours was one of the better posts about Kryptos so kudos to you! 20 years and all of this effort, it’s likely we’re overcomplicating it and have missed something incredibly simple. I need help, maybe you or one of your readers might be interested?

  2. Jose Galofre Says:

    Hello from Spain

    + I suggest a solution to KRIPTOS K4

    + IF the sculptor of Kryptos Mr. Sanborn has provided The New York
    Times with the answers to six letters in the sculpture’s final passage.
    The characters that are the 64th through 69th in the final series on the
    sculpture read NYPVTT. When deciphered, they read BERLIN
    http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2010/11/20/us/code.html?ref=us&_r=0

    + THEN in my humble opinion the best solution is this:
    “PEOPLE TO CREATE A SAFER, FREER WORLD AND SURELY THERE IS NO BETTER PLACE THAN BERLIN THE MEETING PLACE OF EAST AND WEST”
    (97 characters, no more & no less)

    + BECAUSE

    1_is a fragment of a speech of Ronald reagan in front of Berlin Wall
    and complies with the requirements explained by the sculptor.
    —Ronald Reagan, address at the Brandenburg Gate, June 12, 1987.
    LOOK
    http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/ronaldreaganbrandenburggate.htm

    He said:
    “Today, thus, represents a moment of hope …….PEOPLE TO
    CREATE A SAFER, FREER WORLD AND SURELY THERE IS NO BETTER PLACE THAN
    BERLIN THE MEETING PLACE OF EAST AND WEST, to make a start.”

    2_a question needs an answer:

    SO, if K 3 has a question: ” …… can you see anythyngq?“. (The account
    of Howard Carter, the renowned Egyptologist, as he opened King Tut’s
    tomb. –and breaking the WALL–)

    THEN … K 4 has an beatiful answer “ People to create a safer, freer
    world ……..” (a fragment of a speech of Ronald reagan in front of Berlin
    WALL)

    3_is a beautiful and elegant solution, is what wanted the CIA: The
    Central Intelligence Agency planned the expansion known as the New
    Headquarters Building in the 1980s and asked artists to submit proposals
    to create a work of art for the courtyard. The broad principles it
    provided for the $250,000 commission included the notion that it should
    “engender feelings of well-being, hope.”

    FINALLY
    + I do not know the name of the encryption system, but this solution complies with the requirements and is lovely.

    Maybe you can find the code used

    Goodbye.
    Reply

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