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Cracking the Code
Comments () | Published May 1, 2006

A Masonic Distress Call

Looking at the synopsis on the front flap of the dust jacket, one can detect a few scattered letters in slightly bolder print. Strung together they read, “Is there no help for the widow’s son?”

The phrase is both a traditional Masonic distress call and a line that links the Masons to Joseph Smith, a Mason and the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, known as the Mormons. Smith reportedly started to say these words as he fell to his death from a window after he was shot and fatally wounded by the mob that stormed his prison cell in Carthage, Illinois.

The dust jacket of the original US version of The Da Vinci Code contains geographical coordinates that seem to allude to “Kryptos,” a ten-foot-tall bronze-and-granite sculpture installed in 1990 in the central courtyard of CIA Headquarters in Langley. Hold the back of the dust jacket up to a mirror and look closely at the part near the Robert Crais blurb for the book, and you can faintly see the coordinates 37° 57’ 6.5” N 77° 8’ 44” W on one side (it’s light red on dark red). “Kryptos” is at 38° 57’ 6.5” N 77° 8’ 44” W. When asked about the one-degree difference, Brown, through his Web site, replied: “This discrepancy is intentional.”

The next clue can be seen by holding the book upside down and looking in the faux tear mark on the back cover. In very faint letters one can read only ww knows. The letters apparently refer to William Webster, who commissioned “Kryptos” when he was head of the CIA. The work was created by local sculptor James Sanborn with the aid of Ed Scheidt, a retired CIA cryptographer. Webster is the only man to have served both as head of the FBI and as director of Central Intelligence. Tying him to the new book is pure gold for conspiracy theorists.

“Kryptos” is a copper wall that features four long coded passages, beginning with the oft-Googled letters emufphzlrfaxyusdjkzldkrnshgnfivj. The curving, scroll-like wall appears to flow out of a petrified tree. (Another Sanborn sculpture bearing the code is, unlike the one at Langley, on public view at the Hirshhorn Museum.)

“Kryptos” has taunted code-breakers. Cryptographers from the National Security Agency and the CIA have cracked the first three passages. But it’s been more than six years since anyone reported progress on the final panel, and Sanborn claims to be the only man alive who knows the solution. Maybe.

When “Kryptos” was dedicated in 1990, Webster told Sanborn, “You have captured much of what this agency is about.” Then Webster asked for the solution. According to a CIA official, Sanborn replied that he did not give out solutions, and Webster said he did not give out checks for unsolved puzzles. Sanborn relented. Webster put the solution in the director’s safe, where it is said to remain.

A few years later, David D. Stein, a CIA intelligence officer who describes himself as an amateur cryptographer, took up the task of cracking “Kryptos.” In a 23-page, unclassified report in the CIA’s professional journal, Studies in Intelligence, Stein wrote that it took him 400 hours to break the first paragraph of the “Kryptos” message. It makes enigmatic references to something invisible and to the Earth’s magnetic field. It gives the correct location of “Kryptos” and asks odd questions: “Does Langley know about this? . . . Who knows the exact location? Only WW.”

The rest of the message quotes Egyptologist Howard Carter’s account of the opening of the tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamen in 1922: “Slowly, desparatly [Sanborn inserted some misspellings to confuse code-breakers] slowly, the remains of passage debris that encumbered the lower part of the doorway was removed. 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?”

One last bit of the “Kryptos” message remains uncracked. But the decoded Egyptian connection gives Brown and his code-breaking sleuth a link to the Masons: Their buildings and their regalia abound in Egyptian symbols.

Unless this is all a colossal exercise in literary disinformation—the Masonic origin of DC, the powerful politicians who were Masons, the CIA sculpture, King Tut and the mummy’s curse—Brown’s sequel to The Da Vinci Code will have plenty of Washington possibilities to work with. Using a historical, mysterious assemblage like the Masons in his plot would fit the pattern of Brown’s previous works. In Angels & Demons, a sinister secret society called the Illuminati figures prominently, and in The Da Vinci Code, Robert Langdon grapples with various “hidden hands” of history, including the Knights Templar, long a favorite for conspiracy theorists, and Opus Dei, the conservative Roman Catholic group that is personified in a maniacal albino monk who likes to pause between murders to whip himself bloody or tighten the flesh-piercing barbed strap he wears around his thigh.

Masons offer a wonderful cast of real-life characters—astronauts, actors John Wayne and Clark Gable, comedians (Michael A. Richards, a.k.a. Cosmo Kramer, was introduced to the order by Red Skelton), and, above all, people whose stage was the nation’s capital: George Washington and 13 other presidents were Masons, as were eight vice presidents, 42 Supreme Court justices, including five chief justices, along with John Philip Sousa, General Douglas MacArthur, and J. Edgar Hoover, to whose memory a room is dedicated in the Masons’ mighty 16th Street temple, which also houses his personal archives.

There is no evidence that Masons have engaged in any modern conspiracy. They take no political positions, do not speak with a single voice, and espouse no religious convictions beyond the “Brotherhood of Man under Fatherhood of God.” The Catholic Church views the Masons as a “naturalistic” religion. As a Vatican official, Joseph Ratzinger—now Pope Benedict XVI—wrote in 1983 that the Masons’ “principles have always been considered irreconcilable with the doctrine of the Church and therefore membership in them remains forbidden” to Catholics.

Masonic secrets? “I’ve got every degree in the Masons that there is,” 33rd-degree Mason Harry Truman once said. “And if there are any secrets to give away, I’ll be damned if I know what they are.”


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Posted at 05:00 PM/ET, 05/01/2006 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Articles