CIA Releases Analyst’s Fascinating Tale of Cracking the Kryptos Sculpture

It took eight years after artist Jim Sanborn unveiled his cryptographic sculpture at the CIA’s headquarters for someone to succeed at cracking Kryptos’s enigmatic messages.

In 1998, CIA analyst David Stein cracked three of the sculpture’s four coded messages after spending 400 hours diddling over the problem with paper and pencil during many lunch breaks.

Though many people, on and off the CIA campus in Langley, Virginia, had tried to break the 865-character coded puzzle, Stein, a member of the agency’s Directorate of Intelligence, was the first to succeed.

Only his CIA colleagues knew about his achievement at the time, however, because he wasn’t allowed to go public with the news. A year later, California computer scientist Jim Gillogly stole the spotlight when he announced that he’d cracked the same three messages, only he used a Pentium II to do it.
In 1999, Stein wrote a fascinating account of how he cracked the messages. The suspenseful 11-page tale, which appeared in the CIA’s classified journal Studies in Intelligence, is one of perseverance and pluck, not unlike the epic story of Captain Ahab pursuing Moby Dick (Stein himself references the literary tale in his entertaining piece).
This week, the National Security Archive published the now-unclassified document after receiving it from the CIA. Though the article has been published publicly before, it’s never been widely disseminated.
An amateur cryptographer, Stein described how suddenly his breakthrough occurred after seven years of labor:
I was hit by that sweetly ecstatic, rare experience that I have heard described as a ‘moment of clarity.’ All the doubts and speculations about the thousands of possible alternate paths simply melted away, and I clearly saw the one correct course laid out in front of me. Taking a fresh sheet of paper, I slowly and deliberately wrote out a new column of letters, followed by another, and then another. I continued this for several pages, then computed mathematically which rows were most likely to represent the correct plaintext letters, and searched for logical combinations between adjacent letters. I tried to contain my excitement as I witnessed the miracle of letters slowly forming together into words, one after the other. Within the next few hours, I had finished. After more than seven years encompassing some 400 hours of laboring over piles and piles of paper covered with gibberish, I was at last looking down at a paragraph of clear English text. I had broken out the first part of the Kryptos code.
Like Ishmael, the narrator in Moby Dick, Stein waxed philosophical at the end of his journey — and took a slight dig at Gillogly for reaching the same destination using his Pentium II shortcut.
Professional cryptographers almost certainly could have broken these codes much faster, and would have used superior methods. But I doubt that they would have derived as much satisfaction as I have. I didn’t use any computers to decrypt the Kryptos codes — just pencil and paper, some common sense, and a lot of perseverance. Using a computer would have cheated me out of the feeling of accomplishment that I obtained, because l’ve found that often in life the journey itself can be more gratifying than arriving at the final destination. Mountains are not climbed nor marathons run merely to reach a geographical location — there are much easier ways to accomplish these feats — but as personal and spiritual challenges to the participants.
When confronted with a puzzle or problem, we sometimes can lose sight of the fact that we have issued a challenge to ourselves–not to our tools. And before we automatically reach for our computers, we sometimes need to remember that we already possess the most essential and powerful problem-solving tool within our own minds.
Not all of Kryptos has been solved. The last coded section, consisting of 97 characters, still awaits Ahab’s harpoon.
Enjoy the full article below. For an unredacted version of it (including missing images and figures) see Elonka Dunin’s comprehensive Kryptos page.

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