Solution to Evan Birnholz’s August 28 crossword puzzle, “Secret Agents”


Play the music for “Mission: Impossible” – we have a secret crossword on our hands!

Today’s crossword has a meta-puzzle that splits into two parts: one is the main 21×21 crossword, and the second is a mysterious secret file that you need to unlock online. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to complete the crossword puzzle, infiltrate the Washington Post website, find the file, and uncover the two-word phrase that serves as the puzzle’s final meta-answer.

This article will discuss the “Secret Agents” and the “Dossier” step by step, first giving some tips on how to solve the meta before revealing the full solutions. If you haven’t solved the meta and don’t want any spoilers, stop reading now and come back later. Otherwise, continue. Let’s complete this mission together.

The instructions give you the information about the mission:

You are a special agent looking for a secret file. After completing this puzzle, go to and click on a link to the folder where you need to enter a four-digit code. The file will give you clues on how to find the two-word phrase that is the meta-answer for this puzzle.

The first step is to solve the puzzle and find the correct four-digit code. You cannot enter any four digit code, you need a specific code to access the folder.

The puzzle itself looks like a standard crossword at first glance, although there are quite a few black squares (96, which is very high for a typical 21×21 grid) and also more answers than the normal (most of my puzzles have 144 answers, but this one has 156). The first sign that something is wrong is that several Down answers seem to be one letter short. 12D: [Soaks (up)] seems to be SOP, but it really should be SOPS. 15D: [Cain’s victim] is another three letter answer, but it should definitely be ABEL and not ABE as it appears in the grid. 116D: [Toon Betty’s surname] is a pretty basic hint for BOOP, but the answer is apparently OOP. What’s going on?

It turns out there are secret letters hidden in black squares across the grid. The words in these black squares reveal names that might be familiar to you. These are the names of famous fictional secret agents. In fact, that means there are 160 total answers in the grid if you count those hidden answers not included.

  • SMILE of John Le Carré’s novels is hidden in six black squares to the northeast. The answers crossed down above these black squares are MY(S), THEIR), RAN(I), ABEL), FIRE)and ST(Y). The answers down under these black squares are (SPARE, (SLANDER, (IRIS, (LACK, (E)DIEand (YEAR.
  • OBLIGATION from Ian Fleming’s novels (and many movies) hides in four black squares a little northwest of the center. Answers crossed down above BOND are COMB), OR N/A, NEON)and SOLD). Answers crossed down under BOND are (BLOUSE, (OPAL, (NOTHINGand (D)RAT. Thought it was funny how the index for (N)ONE at 57D was [Zero]which would certainly be an incorrect clue for the apparent answer UN.
  • PEEL from “The Avengers” hides in four black squares a little southeast of the center. The cross answers down above PEEL are CHOP), TO HATE), ANTand IDOL). The answers crossed downwards under PEEL are (P)ADS, (ISSUE, (E)DNAand (DAUGHTER.
  • BOURNE novels by Robert Ludlum hides in six black squares in the southwest. The crossover responses down over BOURNE are AHA(B), REN(O), RAG(U), DRIVER), CAVE)and DENSE). The below BOURNE crossover answers below are (B)OP, (O)RCA, (U)DON, (RAND, (N)INAand (E)OURS.

The answers from the trick down are legit crossword entries with and without the black square letters, which is what I always look for in hidden letter themes. In fact, this theme, as is, could stand on its own without additional meta. But if you want to find the secret meta-answer, what do we do with these literally secret agents?

A big clue is in the final answer Across at 133A: [Secret agent … and a word whose letters, when applied to this puzzle’s secret agents, hint at a four-digit code] Which one is MOLE. This might lead to some good ideas that are unintended pitfalls. One idea might be to count the number of instances of M/O/L/E in secret agent names, so with one M, two O’s, two L’s and four E’s it would get you to code 1224 . .. which is incorrect.

The correct idea is similar. What you need to do is spot MOLE spelled one letter at a time in the four names:

  • SMILEY — the second letter is an M.
  • BOND — the second letter is an O.
  • PEEL — the fourth letter is an L.
  • BOURNE — the sixth letter is an E.

Now take these numbered positions of the letters MOLE in the secret agent names and you get the four digit code 2246. This is the file code. So, then click on the link provided on the Sunday riddle webpage (the folder link is available in the riddle start message and also accessible from the “Info” button in the navigation bar on computer and in the clue list view on mobile) and enter 2246 in the box.

The File is a small 11×11 puzzle. It looks a bit like one of those old-school computer disks an agent might use to download classified information…or so I think it does. Either way, the instructions tell you to search for clues to find the final meta-answer in the main 21×21 puzzle. You’re also told that you won’t need the four-digit code after unlocking the folder, so you can delete 2246 for the rest of the meta.

There are two obvious thematic clues in the Dossier:

  • 12A: [Code ___ (things often assumed by secret agents … although some use their real ones)] is NAMES.
  • 40A: [Code ___ (terms that form a secret message … like four answers in the larger puzzle that correspond with four clues found in this dossier)] is WORDS.

There are 160 answers in the larger puzzle, so how do you determine which ones are relevant to the case? Well, there’s the hidden SMILEY, BOND, PEEL and BOURNE, and the clue for LOL at 35D in the east folder [Potential reaction to an SNL clip on YouTube] which might remind you of a SMILEY emoji. But there aren’t many clues in the record that could directly apply to BOND or PEEL or BOURNE.

This is where the NAMES index comes in. Some secret agents use code names like 007, but some (famous) ones use their real names. The first names of the secret agents are also in the Dossier:

  • 13A: [Character in classic horror films] is JASONJason’s first name BOURNE.
  • 25A: [Golden Globe Award-winning actress Stone] is EMMAEmma’s first name PEEL.
  • 26A: [One of the Beatles] is GEORGEGeorge’s first name SMILE.
  • 31A: [NBA star who was selected first overall in the NBA draft] is JAMESJames’s first name OBLIGATION.

Now you need to go back to the 21×21 puzzle. The Clue for WORDS says you need to find four answers in the main puzzle that match four clues in the folder. Could the clues for JASON, EMMA, GEORGE, and JAMES match the answers in the larger grid? Yes!:

  • [Character in classic horror films] → IGO at 18A in the largest puzzle.
  • [Golden Globe Award-winning actress Stone] → SHARON at 34A in the largest puzzle.
  • [One of the Beatles] → PAUL at 67D in the larger puzzle.
  • [NBA star who was selected first overall in the NBA draft] → YAO at 124D in the largest puzzle.

The last thing to do is take the first letters of these four associated answers in order…

…and you get the two-word phrase I SPY. This is the final meta-answer.

Congratulations on getting this far, Agents, whether you’ve completed the mission on your own or are working with a partner. If you enjoy other spy-related puzzles, consider checking out Spyscape’s Free Weekly Crossword Edited by Will Nediger. I especially enjoyed solving Bryant White’s August 6 “Exit Strategy” puzzle.

Mission accomplished. We’ll come back with something a little more normal next week. In addition to the puzzle, I plan to interview a friend of mine from the crossword world in this space. Stay tuned.

Special thanks to Amuse Labs, Emily Chow Mitnick and Ali Mokhtar for their work in adapting the file for online solving, and to a very large group of testers on the puzzle itself (in alphabetical order: Patrick Blindauer, Josh Forsythe , Amy Goldstein, Martin Herbach, Ken Levin, Joe Sampson, Steve Thurman, Danny Williams and James Witherite).

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