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CIA's artistic enigma yields all but the final clue

WASHINGTON -- It has stood in a courtyard inside the CIA for almost a decade, a sculptural mystery inside an enigma.

But last week Jim Gillogly, a Southern California computer scientist, did what has until now been done -- quietly, and incompletely -- only inside the agency's halls. He succeeded in breaking almost all of a cipher embedded in a sculpture called Kryptos -- the Greek word for "hidden" -- that was dedicated at the CIA in October 1990.Since then, the 865-character message etched into the sculpture by the artist, Jim Sanborn, has defied all attempts to completely unravel its conundrum. Even Gillogly acknowledges that he has deciphered only its first 768 characters. Still unbroken are the last 97 characters, apparently the same section that has also stumped both the CIA and the National Security Agency.

Sanborn said this week that the sculpture contains a riddle within a riddle -- one that will be solvable only after the four encrypted passages are known. The complete answer was handed to William Webster, director of central intelligence when the sculpture was completed, and has been held in confidence by his successors.

The tantalizing clues uncovered last week are likely to rekindle interest in a complete solution: The three sections include a poetic phrase, a reference to a point near the CIA's headquarters in Langley, Va. (with the enticing passage, "Who knows the exact location? Only WW"), and an excerpt from an account of the opening of King Tut's tomb in 1922.

"I don't really have a good idea of what it might be," said Gillogly, a 53-year-old cryptographer at Mentat Inc., a Los Angeles software maker, who started designing cryptograms with his brother as a child in an attempt to stump their father.

A computer hacker in the best sense of the word and a past president of the American Cryptogram Association, Gillogly (pronounced gill-OH-glee) began exploring the Kryptos message in 1992, but he abandoned it until nine days ago, when he saw it briefly alluded to in an Internet discussion group.

This time he was armed with a better weapon than the pencil and paper he had seven years ago: his home computer, a highly powered Pentium II. And the key to solving the first three sections of the message proved to be a program that Gillogly had written as part of his cryptographic passion.

The program, he said, is intended to help solve what he refers to as classical cryptographic systems used by kings, armies and spies before World War II.

Even with more computational power, he had to apply traditional cryptographic methods, using his logical powers of deduction. "There was a fair amount of skull sweat," he said. "You work on it and you see something that is a little out of whack and you start pulling on it to see what unravels."

When he contacted the CIA's press office last week, Gillogly learned that he was not the first codebreaker to succeed at unraveling the first part of the mystery.

In February, David Stein, who works for the agency as a physicist and senior analyst, and not as a professional cryptographer, had quietly uncovered the same three passages. Like Gillogly, he has been stumped by the final section, although he believes that it will eventually be solved.

"The Kryptos puzzle is a layered puzzle," he said Tuesday, "and we may find that it has layers within layers within layers."

Stein sounded a bit miffed when he learned that Gillogly had used a computer in his pursuit of the hidden codes. "Kryptos was meant to be solved with pencil and paper," he said.

There were no written rules in this contest, Gillogly responded. "As far as I'm concerned a crack is where you find it," he said. "The choice of tool isn't the important part, but rather the decisions about how to use the tools."

For his part, Webster said Tuesday that he had long since forgotten the answer. "I have zero memory of this," he said. "It was philosophical and obscure." But he sided with Gillogly on using a computer. "Who set the rules here?" he asked. "This is precisely what the agencies do when they try to break codes."

Sanborn, the artist, who has designed a number of sculptures that are puzzles, has said he believes that the ultimate secret hidden in the text of Kryptos will never be deciphered. It was designed by Edward Scheidt, a former chairman of the CIA's Cryptographic Center.